Summer 2004

Making Decisions About What to Publish

Several examples demonstrate how the press and government officials interact when it comes to secrecy.

By Barton Gellman

In lectures he gave at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson school, Barton Gellman described situations when he and his editors met with government officials as part of determining what information to publish. What follows are some examples he cited.

I promised to talk about how we decide what to publish and what to hold back. It’s easiest to talk in detail about older cases, so I’ll begin there. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I was skeptical of General Norman Schwarzkopf’s briefings on bombing progress. From one week to the next he increased his estimate of the daily damage to Iraqi tanks by a factor of 10. How could that be? Most of the tanks were buried, hard to find or hit. My colleague Rick Atkinson and I found out that pilots had found a new way to use the forward-looking infrared sensor (FLIR). Usually they search for hot spots, but pilots found that armor sheds heat at a different rate than desert sand. If they looked soon after sundown, they could find tanks by aiming at cold spots.

The Washington Post did not seriously consider publishing that story. We did not bother to consult with the government. We just sat on it. I was sorry to give up a scoop, but this was obviously a technique to which Iraq could take countermeasures. Publication would do concrete harm to the war effort, and it served no grand public policy interest to disclose it. I do so now because it has since come into the public record.

Unveiling Washington’s Shadow Government

A more recent and more complicated example happened in 2002 when my colleague Sue Schmidt and I learned that President Bush had deployed what we called in shorthand a “shadow government” of senior officials into underground bunkers far from Washington. There had been contingency plans for this through the Cold War, called continuity of government and continuity of operations plan (COG/COOP). Bush was the first President to activate them. This was a watershed. For the first time a President was saying, because of al-Qaeda, that he could not be sure that Washington would be here tomorrow. It spoke volumes about the new insecurity of a post-9/11 world. And the whole thing was very highly classified, top secret code-worded information.

When the government learned I was asking questions, White House chief of staff Andrew Card called the executive editor of The Washington Post. He said he couldn’t believe the Post would publish such a thing, and if we seriously contemplated doing so he wanted an opportunity to be heard. Len Downie, the editor, called me. I phoned Card’s office the next day and said, here’s your opportunity to be heard. His deputy invited me to pay a visit.

I asked what exactly the government sought to protect. He said everything. I said I didn’t think that would fly, and I had the impression he did not expect it to. We talked some more. He cared most that we not disclose the sites of the bunkers, the names of those deployed, and the mechanics of the deployment. I told him that I thought he had good reasons for concern, and I thought I would agree, but I wasn’t completely convinced. Details are vital in a story like this. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If we are going to break something big, we need to show readers we know it’s true. These bunkers had been designed to withstand a hydrogen bomb. What exactly, I asked, did the White House think Osama bin Laden could do to them?

On the other hand, I knew already from my executive editor that there was no way we would publish the details. But it was the uncertainty on that point that got me into the chief of staff’s office, and I maintained it in part to continue the conversation. I said, “I’m sure you don’t think I came here only to take things out of the story. What can you tell me?” I learned a few things, including the numbers of those deployed. Once he was sure we would run the story, he gave me an on-the-record quote. Only for that reason can I tell you I was talking to Joe Hagan. The on-the-record quote served his purpose, but it also made our story much more credible.

A related case. In December [2002] I learned that the Energy Department’s national labs had undertaken a crash deployment of a prototype system to detect nuclear materials entering the nation’s capital. It was a distributed network of sensors called, aptly, “Ring Around Washington.” It didn’t work. Again, very highly classified. The story I was writing, a very long one, asked the question: Are we safer after 14 months of war with al-Qaeda than we were on 9/11? “Ring Around Washington” was highly relevant. I consulted with high-ranking officials I can’t name. They wished we would not mention the ring at all. What they really cared about, though, was that we not describe exactly why the system failed—how it could be defeated. I proposed a very general way to describe the flaws, and after a while we came to a formula we all could live with. …

Investigating Unscom’s Investigations

The most complicated example had to do with Unscom, the U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq through the 1990’s. In August of 1998, I learned—the reporting began with a guess—that the U.S. government was quietly urging Unscom to back off. I described a phone call in which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright persuaded Richard Butler, Unscom’s executive chairman, to rescind his order for a surprise visit to the headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s special security organization. Washington was even then professing support for anywhere, anytime inspections, and threatening the use of military force to compel them, but it had lost backing for that position in the U.N. Security Council. Albright tried to have it both ways, and I showed that.

Governments find it useful, often in good causes, to say conflicting things in different forums. I am in the information arbitrage business. I don’t collaborate in that effort. We believe in my business that the truth—an accurate depiction of the world as it is—has an elemental value. We will not conspire to hold it back in support of some particular diplomatic result. Unscom was dying. Saying so might or might not have sped the death, but staying silent would not have saved it. We would probably not have stayed quiet regardless.

As I traced the death throes of Unscom, I discovered its extraordinary development into the first—and probably last—U.N. intelligence agency. It was actually improvising high-technology spy tools against Iraq. The first time I wrote about that, authorities told me I would put the lives of inspectors and clandestine operatives at risk if I included details. We compromised on the following language: “inspectors deliberately triggered Iraq’s defenses against a surprise search and used a new synthesis of intelligence techniques to look and listen as the Baghdad government moved contraband from the site.” A bunch of mumbo jumbo and deliberately so.

I knew a great deal about the operation, and I sat on it for months. But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office started hearing rumors, and Annan assigned a competent investigator  to learn  more. Anything that smacked of espionage against a member state represented a huge threat to the U.N. system, as he saw it. In January 1999, I told my sources that the story was beginning to seep out. Le Monde, Al Hayat, and The Boston Globe were pursuing it. On January 6th, with notice to authorities, I wrote some of what I knew: Unscom had used eavesdropping equipment, carried by inspectors, to monitor communications that Iraq knew were safe from satellites. I knew the type of equipment, the identities of the inspectors, even the radio frequencies. I pursued those details to be sure my sources knew what they were talking about. We never considered publishing them.

A few months later, I discovered the most stunning aspect of the story. There had been yet another level of espionage. The U.S. government planted listening devices in Unscom equipment to spy on Iraq in ways that Unscom itself did not know about—and that had nothing to do with Unscom’s mission. All those years, Unscom said Iraq was hiding weapons, and Baghdad said Unscom was a nest of spies. It turned out that both sides, more or less, were right. The CIA told me that there were clandestine operatives still in Iraq and asked for time to get them out if we planned to publish. We waited. Then we published. That was a hard decision—it is possible that we stopped a productive intelligence operation—but I think it was the right one on balance.

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