Summer 2004

Revealing a Reporter’s Relationship With Secrecy and Sources

Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman explains how he handles classified information in reporting on war and weapons.

Excerpts from lectures by Barton Gellman

In the fall of 2003 Barton Gellman, a special projects reporter based in New York for The Washington Post, spoke at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in a lecture series called “Secrecy, Security and Self-Government.” He entitled his first lecture “An Argument for Unauthorized Disclosures” and his second “How I Learn Secrets and Why I Print Them.” In January 2004, Gellman wrote an article about what weapons investigators were finding in Iraq, entitled “Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper: Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage.” What follows are excerpts from his lectures.

I tell stories for a living, so I’ll start with one tonight. A few months ago, I returned from hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I didn’t have much luck. But I did spend a lot of time among the hunters. I did not choose to be “embedded” with the U.S. military. I cadged my way, more or less, into a search team, living and traveling as a reporter among its soldiers.

I’ll tell you about May 1, 2003, a fairly typical day. The team gathered up its gear—sledgehammer, flame spectrometer, pathogen assay kit. We drove to a walled compound that the Defense Intelligence Agency called “Possible SSO Facility Al Hayat”—SSO being Saddam Hussein’s Special Security Organization. U.S. Central Command ranked the site 26th of 90 top prospects for weapons of mass destruction. I watched the search team test for booby traps, scan for chemicals, cut through locks, and move by flashlight through a darkened corridor, lined with steel doors. The demolition guy broke through to the innermost chamber. And before our eyes there stood a cache—of vacuum cleaners.

I tell this tale not to make sport of the weapons hunt. Vacuum cleaners will take us soon to questions about secrecy, but a little context first. Site 26 produced much the same result as sites one through 25 and 27 through 90. Since I am here to talk about tensions between self-government and secrecy in the cause of national defense, I’d suggest that if you wish to assess the U.S. government’s motive for and conduct of the war, you might think it relevant that there were no weapons in 90 of the top 90 suspected weapons sites. I don’t say this is dispositive of anything, simply that it sounds like something relevant.

So now I come to the point about site 26. Everything I told you about it— that it was 26 on the priority list, that there were 90 on the list, the date and location of the search, the connection to the SSO and, yes, the vacuum clean-ers—every bit of that is classified secret. A few of the things I wrote that we published in the newspaper were top secret. I learned some of it by direct observation, some by persuading people, against the rules, to share their records and memories.

Publishing Secrets

There is nothing anomalous here. I’m a projects reporter, and now my project is the weapons hunt. Nearly everything I want to know, and much of what I write, is classified. One day my adopted survey team seized a suspicious document, handwritten in Arabic and illustrated with sketches of laboratory glass. The document turned out to be a high school science exercise. The survey team’s report was classified. The school-book exercise was appended to that report—which means that some Iraqi teenager’s description of Boyle’s Law is a classified U.S. government secret. A qualified authority made a binding judgment that disclosure of this text would do “serious damage to national security.” So don’t ask me about the relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas held at constant temperature. I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

The same survey team found a distillery where a biological warfare factory was supposed to be—that’s classified—and a swimming pool U.S. intelligence called a chemical bunker. Classified. Looting, as you’ve read, has been an enormous problem for the weapons hunters. When I was there, Central Command had forces available to guard 153 of the 372 buildings it considered important. That’s classified, too.

All these are secrets, and I put them in The Washington Post. What are we to make of that? What the Defense Department made of it was clear enough. Today the weapons hunting team, the Iraq Survey Group, receives no visitors. It will not disclose the number of its personnel, the military and intelligence units involved, or any of the evidence it is collecting. My question: Was the Pentagon right? Was I wrong to publish things the government tried to withhold? You’re waiting for me to cite the First Amendment. You can stop waiting. Today, at least, I will look elsewhere. …

I do not need you to believe that governments measure wrongly the risks of disclosure, or that publication of secrets does no harm, or that any particular story is essential to public debate. What I want to consider is how to navigate disputes over national security secrecy and who gets to hold the rudder. And my answer, or part of it, is that government is incompetent to do so on its own. By incompetent, I do not mean unskilled. I mean that government has no legitimate claim to sole control of secrecy decisions, even on matters of common defense. The lawful application of a classified stamp is the beginning, not the end, of my inquiry.

Government Secrecy and Decisions About War

Hard questions about government secrecy involve a clash of core values. Call them self-preservation and self-government. Any answer that fails to take both of those values seriously, and address them both explicitly, has not even engaged the central problem. …

What happens when government conceals from us its deeds on behalf of our defense? With stakes of life and death, it is easy to see the vital need to deny advantage to an enemy. But life-and-death stakes give equal urgency to the project of holding our leaders accountable for their use of power. If we are sovereign, we rule those who rule us. Secrecy corrodes self-government, just as it strengthens self-defense. Both interests reach peak importance in time of war.

Consider the debate of the moment in hypothetical form. Suppose the President lied about Iraq’s nonconventional weapons and thereby took the nation to war in Iraq by a kind of fraud. There is nothing like enough evidence on the public record to prove that charge. There is nothing like enough evidence to refute it, either. This is not an epistemological problem. The evidence exists. It stands behind barriers of classification and executive privilege. The question is whether to pierce them. …

Opening files would resolve the mystery but undoubtedly carry high costs. It might put the safety of human sources at risk, reveal enough about intelligence methods to enable their defeat, compromise ongoing operations, or warn enemies of operations to come. Withholding the evidence, on the other hand, renders citizens unable to judge what may be the most consequential act of this presidency. It deprives us of information that might define our votes on Election Day, but that is not the only stake for democracy. Ignorance hobbles us as participants in an ongoing act of national choice. Iraq will cost lives and money for a long time to come and many decisions lie ahead. The President cannot make most of them by command. He must use powers of suasion to carry the public and Congress. Is it suasion, though, if those persuaded form their opinions in the dark? …

Return now to our hypothetical. Who might resolve the inherent conflict over prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs? Two weighty interests are on the scale, democracy and defense. Is there anyone with a legitimate claim to balance them? A long list of incompetents comes to mind. Suppose we begin with me. I am not qualified to assess harms to national security. Don’t tell my editors, but they aren’t, either. Our newsroom, in truth, has some relevant expertise and experience. But we are not trained to weigh the risks, and we are not responsible to anyone for the consequences.

The President, for his part, is not qualified to decide what the public needs to know in order to hold him accountable. That is actually too weak a formula. The President is forbidden to define the terms by which we may judge him.

Where else might we turn? The judiciary comes to mind, but for one thing it is disinclined to play the role. The leading judicial doctrine on national security is deference to the executive branch, which is a judicious way to say, “Leave us out of it.” … What about the legislative branch? By constitutional design, Congress shares war-making authority with the President. In practice that day is gone. It is true that the government’s secrets are overseen by the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. It is equally true that the committees know only the secrets the President chooses to tell them. Even when they know something, legislators are helpless to call it to public attention. Public attention is not only the most powerful tool of challenge to the executive, it is the only tool that could carry the burden of our argument about accountability to the people. … Could a quasi-independent government entity—say, an inspector general—perform the balancing role? I think not. An inspector general’s office has no power to declassify, and its independence is compromised at least potentially by the agency within whose budget, culture and personnel system it resides. …

The Struggle Over Secrets

It turns out that I am making an argument for something like the status quo. In practice, the flow of information is regulated by a process of struggle as the government tries to keep its secrets and people like me try to find them out. Intermediaries, with a variety of motives, perform the arbitrage. No one effectively exerts coercive authority at the boundary. And that’s a good thing.

Formal and informal structures keep this system in equilibrium. The letter and practice of law enforcement make it difficult, but not enormously dangerous, to broach secrets in print. That is a fine balance, and the status quo I’m describing depends on it. Those with lawful access to classified information are forbidden by contract to disclose it and face loss of their jobs, civil and potentially criminal penalties. A government official needs a very good reason to take these risks. Having found such an official, reporters and their publishers incur little risk themselves. No law on its face, and unambiguously, forbids me to possess or publish a government secret.

It is surely possible for a government to work harder than this to suppress its secrets. If we look overseas, most do. Every White House would prefer a tighter grip on its secrets. But on balance, at the systemic level, the behavior of recent presidents implies a tacit belief that such a grip cannot be had at acceptable cost. And there is a comparable form of self-restraint on the part of the press, which leads to an unexpected collaboration when a secret is nearing disclosure.

"Making Decisions About What to Publish"
- Barton Gellman
The Washington Post and its peers routinely consult responsible agencies before publishing anything classified. My most frequent interlocutor says his job in these conversations is to “shed light and shed darkness.” Sometimes he corrects a fact or supplies a point of context. Sometimes he blusters. Sometimes he chooses not to engage. And sometimes he asks on behalf of his agency that the Post suppress publication of something he acknowledges to be true. We often ask for explanation of the stakes. And it happens from time to time that the government tells me something very sensitive, which I did not know, to explain why I should not publish something I did know.

Usually we find accommodation at the working level. Now and then it goes higher. In December, on a particularly sensitive point, we did not reach a meeting of minds until a conference call—at her request—with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Twice that I know of, a President has called the publisher or executive editor. …

I am quite certain I do not speak The Washington Post, but here are some personal observations about its behavior in secrecy cases. We seldom if ever agree to withhold information that exposes a government lie, even a well-intended one. We give no special weight to preventing diplomatic embarrassment. We acknowledge no right of privacy for individuals acting in their capacity as government officers and so their positions in internal debate are fair game.

One last word about our hypothetical. Did the U.S. government dissemble about Iraq? On a question of this magnitude, a journalist’s highest calling is to unearth evidence. Not opinion, not surmise. Evidence. In August 2003, I wrote a very long story examining prewar claims that Iraq had revived—or “reconstituted,” as the Bush administration put it—a nuclear weapons program. My partner Walter Pincus and I found a striking disparity between what the White House knew and what it said.

The most important example had to do with specialized aluminum tubes, which Iraq tried to buy overseas. The Bush administration said Iraq planned to use the tubes to build a gas centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium for a bomb. Iraq said the tubes were for artillery rockets. The Bush administration scoffed. No one, it said, would use so costly an alloy for expendable munitions.

You know what? Someone does use that alloy for rockets. The rocket is a standard NATO munition, called the Medusa. The Bush administration knew that. It also knew that the Medusa tube is identical in every dimension to the ones at issue. And it knew that Iraq reverse-engineered the Medusa and was building copies just outside Baghdad. There was another secret. The U.S. government’s centrifuge physicists— all of them, unanimously—said the aluminum tubes were grossly unsuitable for uranium enrichment.

As curious citizens, you might ask the Bush administration for an explanation. You might ask about the Medusa or the persistence of a theory that the government’s own scientists debunked. You might ask what Iraqi scientists say now about the nuclear program, or what U.S. forces have discovered on the ground. Do not expect an answer. All those things, too, are classified.

In his second lecture Gellman spoke at length about ways in which his reporting intersects with the practice of government secrecy.

National security secrecy presents us with a conflict of core values—self-government and self-defense. If we don’t know what our government is doing, we can’t hold it accountable. If we do know, our enemies know, too, and that can be dangerous. That’s our predicament. Wartime heightens the case for secrecy because the value of security is at its peak. But secrecy is never more damaging to self-government than in wartime, because making war is the very paradigm of a political choice. No individual, and no institution, can be trusted to draw the line for us when these two interests collide. …

Good reporters—and by this I mean most reporters at serious news organizations—do not transmit a source’s claims unexamined. One difference between reporters and readers is that we do know who we’re talking to. This is not something I boast about; I’m as unhappy as anyone about the ubiquity of unnamed sources in the published product. My point is simply that we understand where our sources fit into the organizations and events we write about. We usually know their motives and biases and, armed with that knowledge, we test their assertions against other evidence. … In the end I don’t care all that much why someone talks to me, as long as I understand the motive and can verify what I learn. …

Unearthing information is a little bit like borrowing money: you need some to get some. By far the most common way we learn new things is the iterative work of beat reporters. I don’t mean this in some grand investigative sense. It’s routine, the collection of bits and pieces over time. … This is what the folks in Langley, Virginia, call “assembling the mosaic.” …

Finding Government Secrets

So how do I find out government secrets? I could dignify the process as “reporting by hypothesis,” but I like the military term better. The term is “SWAG.” It’s an acronym, and it stands for “scientific wild-ass guess.” I do a lot of guessing. And no, I don’t put guesses in the paper. I use them to guide my reporting. The metaphor I like best is pulling on threads.

A lot of what I learn is off the page. I’m unlikely to put it in the paper, not because it’s a secret but because it doesn’t fit the conventions of a news story. It has to do with organization charts, the language and background of specialists, the trajectory of careers, the process of bureaucratic decision-making, the equipment and methods of people who do things I write about, the history of an issue, the relationships and rivalries of individuals. I go to conferences and collect obscure reference works. The Army field manual on helicopter maintenance helped us follow both Iraq wars, for instance.

This kind of background helps me guess, from little clues and emanations, what might be happening now. It also helps me figure out who would know it if my guess is right, and who might have a reason to talk. …

What we call “enterprise reporting” almost never comes from one or two sources who spill the whole thing. It comes from an accumulation of small facts that lead eventually to the big fact in our lead. A lot of my guesses are wrong. If I spent my time trying to prove them, rather than explore them, I would be breaching a basic obligation to readers. I abandon far more guesses than I confirm.

In many cases, the ultimate story I’m reporting is classified, but there are unclassified signs around the edges. In the early 1990’s, I suspected that the Clinton administration was going to shift course and intervene in the Balkans. I asked myself, which combatant command would take the lead? Had it formed a joint task force of the kind that runs most military operations? Had the task force “stood up a CAT”—a 24-hour crisis action team? Had the units cancelled leaves and called back personnel? All those things were discoverable, and they gave me strong reason to think I was on the right track.

Sometimes silence is meaningful. … When organizations stop answering questions they usually answer, and when old acquaintances stop returning calls, it tells me something. When I ask something sensitive, the way my interlocutor does not answer hints at whether I’ve touched a nerve.

When I think I’m onto something, I make a list of everyone who might know whether it’s true. Sometimes I know the person, sometimes I know the name, and sometimes I know only the job title. I’m a collector of phone books and lists. I ask myself, who cares least about protecting some small part of this secret? An energy or defense or justice department official might not know or care that a given detail is diplomatically sensitive. A career official at state may not care about the political implications for the White House. Once I have all I can get from those who have the least stake in a subject, I begin to ask questions of those who have the most.

Hardly anyone in government is comfortable about explicitly crossing the line into classified material. Sometimes a person will rationalize it with the notion that he is saying something I already seem to know. Sometimes the person thinks the subject is of overriding importance. Last year I wrote a story about al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire biological weapons. White House and CIA spokesmen told me categorically that there was no U.S. intelligence assessment that al-Qaeda was looking for smallpox. I had heard otherwise. I went back to my original source, who had carefully skirted the line on classified material. The source got angry. I said, the only way to resolve this is for you to read me the language of the document. And that’s what the source did. It was a PowerPoint briefing for top White House senior officials. It said: “al-Qaeda is interested in acquiring biological weapons, to include smallpox.” I went back to the spokesmen. Oh, they said, you mean that assessment.

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