Secrets and the Press
‘Some secrets deserve to be kept, and even secrets uncovered might not merit being put in public print, on television or on the Internet.’
Government institutions and their officials, corporation officers and employees, arts organizations, colleges and universities, social groups and sports teams, music groups and symphony conductors, movie and television personalities all have their secrets. But why something is secret and from whom is another thing altogether.
Ted Gup, a dogged investigative reporter who shares that gift now with journalism students at Case Western Reserve University, has taken on this subject in his book, “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life.” After a 10-year career exposing secrets in newspapers and magazines, and two years studying the subject, Gup writes about his concern that “Today America is a nation of secrets, an increasingly furtive land where closed doors outnumber open ones and where it is no longer ‘the right to know’ but ‘the need to know’ that is the measure against which access is determined.”
As someone who has worked at reporting on government for some 50 years, I can’t argue against aspiring and practicing journalists tacking that sentence up on the wall and remembering it as they go about their business. But there is, as Gup alludes to, another way to think about this. Some secrets deserve to be kept, and even secrets uncovered might not merit being put in public print, on television, or on the Internet. Much as reporters ought to realize that everything an official says publicly might not deserve to be published, just discovering something that is being kept secret, even by government officials, doesn’t mean it needs to be exposed.
Gup concedes the point, saying honestly that “where genuine national interests could be adversely affected, I have also remained silent.” He, in fact, is trying to find the correct midpoint, saying “Secrecy and democracy are not irreconcilable, but the former often advances at the expense of the latter.”
How Secrets Become Public
The question is, always, who decides what government secrets become public? At the most serious level, when lives are obviously at stake, it has to begin with those inside government who have been trusted with the secret. In all instances, even in spying, those outsiders trying to get the secret must find a government source who willingly or even inadvertently turns it over. Since decent journalists—and I confine myself to that category—don’t steal secrets, any discussion on who is to blame for secrets getting out to the media has to go first to the government’s inability to protect its own closely held information. If an administration doesn’t like leaks, officials need to get their own people to respect the need to keep them secret.
At the next level, the journalist or the intermediary who passes the secret on makes his or her own decision on the secret’s import and value. The journalist, I would hope, in deciding to write a story would first seek to determine the truth of the secret—a step that inevitably means going back to the government officials who are involved to try to get verification, context or at least a comment.
Here, in the normal handling of such things, government officials have a second chance to protect things that are genuinely important. They can make their case to the reporter, his or her editor, and even the owner of the enterprise. At The Washington Post and other news enterprises, such discussions over the years have even involved the President of the United States talking to the paper’s owner.
Then there is an equally important step for journalists in deciding whether it is worth publishing a secret just because up to now it has been secret. Does its publication help public understanding of some issue? Or is putting it out there just being done to show that you know something the government wants to keep secret? For example, does a story about a secret intelligence operation you have uncovered, and think the public ought to know about, need to have the actual names of covert agents included, if somehow you find them out? Over the years, The Washington Post has made it a policy to not put those names in the paper when they are not essential to the story.
In the end, it is the judgment of owners, editors and reporters at news organizations—including those people who distribute information on the Internet—that decides whether to publish or not.
When Secrets Are Disclosed
Despite frequent complaints by government officials that we, as journalists, don’t understand the implications of what we are doing, I believe the record over time supports the following conclusion. More often than not, the enhancement of public knowledge gained by published secrets far outweighs the damage that government officials claimed would be or was done. The uproar caused by the December 2005 New York Times publication of stories about the Bush administration’s warrantless terrorist surveillance program neither halted the program nor prevented it from continuing to function. But in defending such instances of publication in the many talks I have given over the years to groups of intelligence and military officers, I’ve always stressed that someone in government with access to the information made the first decision that a secret could be disclosed by sharing it with a journalist.
Gup pushes for transparency as he also takes on the complicated issue of open and closed institutions, not just governmental but also corporate and educational. Here again, there are limits. In some cases, I believe, transparency and openness can be detrimental to public policy. In retrospect, one of many errors I have made journalistically was to write uncritically of the idea of televising the sessions of Congress, first in the House in 1979 and later the Senate in 1986. I should have known better, having covered congressional debates in the late 1950’s and worked twice in the 1960’s running investigations for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright.
One occasion stands out. On the evening of December 15, 1969 I was lucky enough to be one of a handful of staff members on the floor during a closed Senate session when an amendment related to the then-secret U.S. bombing in Laos was debated with all 100 senators present and no one in the galleries. It was a real debate, with senators such as New York’s Jacob Javits, Clifford Case of New Jersey, and Fulbright from Arkansas taking on Richard Russell of Georgia, Mississippi’s John Stennis, and Henry (Scoop) Jackson of Washington. Questions were posed and answers given, or sometimes not given. As a result of this free-swinging discussion, minds were changed, and the first amendment prohibiting then-President Richard Nixon from using funds to introduce ground troops into Laos and Thailand was eventually passed.
That kind of open debate no longer takes place in Congress. Today’s so-called “debates” are seriatim speeches, often with members presenting contrasting information but no direct exchanges between opponents. Why? The reason is television, and the glare of constant public scrutiny with the prospect that a slip of the tongue during floor debate could be used against the incumbent in the next election—or employed even sooner in exchanges that characterize Weblogs.
As a consequence of these experiences, I am opposed to efforts to put the Supreme Court on television. I make it a practice of trying to see as many Supreme Court arguments as I can, a habit I picked up from watching a son of mine argue many times before the court. Those arguments represent the most vigorous and interesting discussions—and the truest intellectual debates—taking place in Washington, D.C. today. Put a television camera in there and the whole situation would change. The public’s “right to know” is satisfied by the delayed radio broadcast of these arguments. And the country would be much better off if the floor sessions of Congress went black and senators and members of Congress went back to freely discussing and debating issues.
When What Is Known Remains Secret
In its pursuit of secrets, today’s news media suffer from a problem that the intelligence community also wrestles with—concentrating so much on getting what someone doesn’t want it to know that it disregards important information already in the public domain, in other words, not secret.
In the 1960’s I wrote about money and politics at a time when finance records of presidential and congressional campaigns hardly existed. In the wake of the reforms after Watergate, disclosure records became so voluminous that private watchdog groups and opposing campaigns, rather than reporters, became the prime source for campaign fund information.
Even in the era of Bush administration secrecy, each day dozens of government reports are printed, contract offerings and awards are listed, hearings held on Capitol Hill with witnesses’ prepared statements released, tax court decisions are issued, and a Federal Register published along with the Congressional Record. Who can possibly read all of this material? Yet, if it isn’t examined and information culled from it by journalists, in effect, what has been investigated and “reported” remains secret to the public at large.
Gup takes on that other oddity in journalism—secrecy within the news media. Having appointed ourselves—with support from the U.S. Constitution—as the guardians of truth for the public, it is incumbent on owners, editors, publishers, news directors, producers, anchors and reporters to practice what we so often preach. But of course we don’t.
The past six years, since 9/11, have illustrated both the best and worst of journalism. Underlying a great deal of our failures—Saddam Hussein’s supposed stockpile of weapons and early acceptance of torturing terrorists and Iraqi prisoners, to give two examples—has been the interwoven problems of secrecy and fear. There has been the fear of this so-called new phenomenon of terrorism, in which everybody, at all times, seems to be at risk, with the reminder that we are all in it together. This fear seems to extend to a real concern about how the repercussions of challenging the government’s pressure to keep everything secret could involve us.
Subpoenas to reporters in the Valerie Plame case created far more anguish within the journalistic community, which is so sensitive of its prerogatives, than it should have. At The Washington Post, where two of us were subpoenaed, the case was handled more as a criminal matter rather than a First Amendment issue. Reporters are citizens who, at times, develop confidential relationships with sources. But when our sources agree to speak to prosecutors, so can we—albeit getting their permission beforehand. If they don’t speak to a prosecutor, and thereby don’t release us from our agreement, then we, like they, must face the legal consequences.
The settlement reached by news organizations in the Wen Ho Lee case, which Gup explores in some detail, illustrates the other side of the confidential sources’ coin. In this case, my confidential sources did not come forward, nor did they release me and other reporters to speak. Each reporter went to court and each claimed a privilege to protect his sources. The courts ruled against us. Then we faced the bad choice of ignoring the law, as it was stated by the U.S. Supreme Court, or settling. The Washington Post, as did the others, decided to settle and pay to keep our pledge to our sources.
As one of the reporters involved, I take issue with Gup’s conclusion that Lee was guilty only of “a crime of common carelessness, not espionage” and was “a victim of secrecy and what appeared to him to be a terrifying alliance between the government and the press.” But right now, my basis for writing this will have to be one of those secrets that I will keep.
Walter Pincus reports on national security issues for The Washington Post.
“Kept from the knowledge of others,” is the shortened definition of a secret in Webster’s New World Dictionary. We all have secrets we keep from others, whether family, friends or the public at large. To be honest, I’ve kept secrets from colleagues—the home or cell phone number from a particularly good source who asked for it be kept private—and even from editors; the original tip came from someone I will not admit ever spoke to me.