Leonard Downie Jr., vice president at large of The Washington Post, served as the newspaper’s executive editor from 1991 to 2008. He also is a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The decade-long clandestine U.S. “war on terror” has spawned a parallel, escalating campaign to stop leaks of information about intelligence activities to the news media. During the first four years of the Obama administration, investigations of spy agency employees have proliferated. Six current or former officials have been prosecuted for unauthorized disclosures of information, more than in all previous administrations combined.
The pressure to keep quiet is intensifying. The director of national intelligence has expanded the use of lie-detector interrogations in leak investigations. His office is studying how all 16 U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies handle “non-incidental contacts” with the news media, presumably interviews and background briefings. Pentagon officials have been ordered to monitor news media for disclosures of classified information.
Now the Senate is considering legislation that would go even further. The 2013 Intelligence Authorization Act would make it a crime for career intelligence officers to provide almost any type of information to the news media, whether the information is classified or not. The bill specifically prohibits a career official from participating in “background or off-the-record” sessions with reporters.
This is a classic example of overkill. The legislation would end contacts that often benefit both the government and the public by allowing the exchange of accurate information about vital national security issues and intelligence activities, including abuses requiring attention. As executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, I know firsthand that such conversations also help the news media avoid publishing information that, inadvertently, might harm national security.
The legislation is pending before the Senate, following its approval by the Senate Intelligence Committee over the summer. The only committee member to vote against the bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has placed a hold on it to prevent passage in its current form. “Without transparent and informed public debate on foreign policy and national security topics, American voters would be ill-equipped to elect the policymakers who make important decisions in these areas,” Wyden said in announcing his hold.
The governmentmust keep some secrets, but excessive secrecy can erode credibility and breed excesses. How can the government build public support for aggressive counterterrorism measures if it operates primarily in the shadows?
“There is no perfect solution to this problem,” said Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, who served in the George W. Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, part of the Justice Department. His recent book, “Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11,” explores the tension between protecting necessary secrets and telling citizens what they should know, too much of which Goldsmith believes is classified as secret.
“Leaks can serve a really important role,” he told me, “in helping to correct government malfeasance, to encourage government to be careful about what it does in secret and to preserve democratic processes.”