Correction: The column should have said that The Post Co. is not opposed to the overall bill that would fund the intelligence agencies but is helping the Newspaper Association of America lobby against the bill’s anti-leak provisions. The column has been revised below.

August 3, 2012

There’s a bill zooming through Congress that would make it harder for Post reporters to inform readers about what their government is doing.

This bill, the annual authorization bill to fund the intelligence agencies, has attached to it provisions aimed at deterring unauthorized leaks of classified information. Those provisions — which were never discussed in a public hearing — would limit who in the agencies can talk to the media even further than they already are, require frequent reports to Congress about contacts with the media and greatly restrict, if not end, the background briefings that intelligence agencies conduct for journalists going on foreign trips.

The Post Co. opposes the anti-leak provisions in this bill. It’s right to do so.

Now, let’s stipulate that a democracy needs to keep some things secret, very secret, from its enemies. Its allies need to trust, too, that secret information will remain so. And a government must protect the lives of its troops, intelligence agents and sources in the field. And, on these points, there isn’t a reporter or editor in the Post newsroom who disagrees.

But this bill would be an administrative nightmare, and it wouldn’t do much, if anything, to deter leaks. As Doug Frantz, The Post’s national security editor, told me, “It will crimp the flow of information.”

Everyone leaks in this town — the White House, members of Congress, their staffs, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department — everyone. Leaks lubricate the gears of foreign and defense policy. Leaks are part of the dialogue over policy.

Reporters are mainly facilitators in this process. Benjamin Shore, a retired editor of Copley News Service, summed up a reporter’s role in leaks this way: “Journalists do not obtain classified information by breaking and entering,” he wrote. “Journalists obtain secrets because the classified information is given to them.”

Shore’s remarks appear in “Who Watches the Watchmen,” an excellent history of attempts to plug leaks written by Gary Ross, an investigator with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Now, there are secrets, and there are secrets. Reporters who get classified or sensitive information that they’re really not supposed to have know it instantly, because government spokesmen suddenly return their calls in record time and arrange interviews with the highest-level sources.

This happened to me. Months after the Persian Gulf War, when the Navy was still finding mines that Saddam Hussein had released into the gulf, I was leaked a report on severe troubles with the Navy’s small mine-countermeasures ships. You’ll recall that two large Navy ships, the cruiser Princeton and amphibious ship Tripoli, had suffered major damage during the Gulf War from hitting mines.

The report said that the small minesweepers were constantly breaking down, the engines were unreliable, and most of the time the ships were laid up in port instead of disarming mines that threatened Navy ships and oil tankers plying the gulf.

After the Navy got over yelling at me and pressing me unsuccessfully about how I obtained the report, I got an interview with the chief of naval operations. He told me, “Nice work. Here’s what I’m going to do to fix the ships.” The leak worked; frustrated lower levels of the Navy got the attention and money they deserved to fix the anti-mine ships. And I got a good story.

But I didn’t write the mine story until I had gone through a delicate negotiation with Navy officials about aspects of the ships that they wanted kept secret. They didn’t want Iraq, or Iran, knowing about certain capabilities. I agreed. These kinds of negotiations with government sources go on constantly in this town to good effect.

The New York Times waited over a year, for example, at the request of the government, before publishing details on the government’s warrantless wiretapping program that the George W. Bush administration launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Frantz, who worked at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before coming to The Post, said, “If anything, the media errs on the side of caution, not recklessness.”

In his monograph, Ross quotes the savvy Robert M. Gates, former defense secretary and CIA director, saying this about legislation to plug leaks: “I personally believe that new laws, even if they could be enacted, would not stop leaks.”

Amen.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.