Public Secrets

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By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Why does The Washington Post willingly publish "classified" information affecting national security? Should Post journalists and others who reveal the government's secrets be subject to criminal prosecution for doing so? These questions, raised with new urgency of late, deserve careful answers.

There's a reason why we're hearing these questions now. We live in tense times. The country is anxious about war and terrorism. Washington is more sharply divided along ideological lines than at any time since I came to work at The Post in 1963. The Bush administration has unabashedly sought to enhance the powers of the executive branch as it wages what it calls a "war on terror," many of whose components are classified secrets.

These are new circumstances, but to a reporter who has been watching the contest between press and government for four decades, what isn't new here seems more significant than what is. What isn't new is a government trying to hide its activities from the public, and a press trying to find out what is being hidden.

Thanks to resourceful reporters, we have learned a great deal about the war that the administration apparently never intended to reveal: that the CIA never could assure the White House that Saddam Hussein's Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction; that U.S. forces egregiously abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib; that the United States had a policy of rendering terrorism suspects to countries such as Egypt and Jordan where torture is commonplace; that the United States established secret prisons in Eastern Europe for terrorism suspects; that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping without warrants on the phone calls of countless Americans, as well as keeping track of whom Americans called from home and work.

You may have been shocked by these revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America's name, shouldn't Americans understand how it is being waged?

Secrecy and security are not the same. On this point, Exhibit A for journalists here at The Post is the 1971 Pentagon Papers case. The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret history of the Vietnam War written inside the Pentagon and leaked to the New York Times and then The Post. Top-secret means a document is so sensitive that its revelation could cause "exceptionally grave damage to the national security." The Nixon administration was in power, and it went to court to block publication on grounds that revealing this history would endanger the nation. A court in New York enjoined the two papers from publishing the information for several days.

But the Supreme Court decided, 6 to 3, that the government had failed to make a case that overrode the constitutional bias in favor of publication. The man who argued the case was Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold. Eighteen years later, Griswold wrote a confession for the op-ed page of this newspaper: "I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication [of the Papers]. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat."

There have been many more. In 1986, William Casey, then the director of central intelligence, threatened The Post with legal action if we disclosed an intelligence-gathering operation code-named Ivy Bells. "There's no way you can run that story without endangering the national security," Casey ominously warned Ben Bradlee, The Post's executive editor at the time.

But it turned out that when Casey issued this warning, the Soviet Union had already learned about Ivy Bells from its spy Ronald Pelton; because of Pelton, the Soviets had captured the hardware that had allowed the United States to listen to Soviet naval communications. So in reality we proposed to publish old news. But Casey had intimidated us; even after learning that the Soviets knew the secret, we equivocated for weeks. Finally, NBC News scooped us on our own story, then we published our version. As the editor supervising preparation of the story, I was humiliated; I also learned a good lesson.

Another aspect of our experience colors our reactions to various officials' complaints about our reporting on classified information. If you relied on the public comments of members of Congress or the example of the Pentagon Papers, you might conclude that we get these stories simply because some disgruntled employee decides to "leak" them to us. In fact, this is a rare occurrence.

The image of the rogue leaker was promoted again this spring when the CIA fired a senior officer named Mary McCarthy while anonymous official sources passed the word that she had been a source of Post reporter Dana Priest's Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop disclosing secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. McCarthy's lawyer has flatly denied this, saying she never knew about the prisons before Priest published her article.

I am not going to disclose Priest's sources (I don't know who they were), but I do know there were many of them. I know that she traveled extensively to report the story. I know that her article, like virtually all the best investigative reporting on sensitive subjects that we publish, was assembled like a Lego skyscraper, brick by brick. Often the sources who help reporters with this difficult task don't even realize that they have contributed a brick or two to the construction. Typically, many of the sources who contribute know only a sliver of the story themselves. A good reporter such as Priest can spend weeks or months on a single story, looking for those bricks.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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