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Public Secrets

I want to add, immodestly, that The Post's record on stories of this kind is good. I don't know of a single case when the paper had to retract or correct an important story containing classified information. Nor do I know of a case when we compromised a secret government program, or put someone's life in danger, or gave an enemy significant assistance.

These are the criteria we generally use when evaluating a report based on classified information. Editors here spend long hours on these stories. We never rush them into print; our lawyers usually read them along with editors.

We publish news we think is important, which is usually easy to recognize. We always ask the administration of the day to comment on sensitive stories, knowing that we may be inviting efforts to dissuade us from publication. This happened in the case of Priest's story on the secret prisons. The Bush administration asked Leonard Downie Jr., our executive editor, not to mention the names of the countries in which these prisons were located, on grounds that naming them could disrupt important intelligence relationships. He agreed, in part because "naming the countries wasn't necessary for American readers," he said later.

But Downie rejected the suggestion that he kill the story altogether. "It raised important issues for American voters about how their country was treating prisoners, and it raised significant civil liberties issues," he said. Journalists are inclined to publish what we learn -- that's our job.

But we don't assert that the government has no right to keep secrets. On the contrary, we have probably helped the government keep secrets more often than we should have. But we exercise common sense, and seek guidance from knowledgeable people when we're uncertain. We avoid the gratuitous revelation of secrets. If we learn next week that the United States has found Osama bin Laden's hiding place, you are unlikely to read a story about it here before the government takes some action.

The American experiment is an experiment in self -government. The Founders established Americans' right to govern themselves. Abuse of government power was their abiding concern. The Founders saw a free press as a tool to control the abuse of power, which is why they gave the press special protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press."

The history of the First Amendment makes clear why the Founders embraced it. Consider, for example, an early draft of the journalist's favorite provision offered to the Constitutional Convention by James Madison: "The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable."

Information is the bulwark Madison had in mind. The people had to know what the government was doing in their name to be able to respond like good citizens. Accountability is only possible when citizens, including members of Congress, know what is going on. None of us has ever been held accountable for an act no one knew we committed.

Self-government and self-defense are two values that don't always coexist easily -- they have to be balanced. But balance is the Founders' greatest gift. They gave us three branches of government to prevent any one from getting an upper hand. And they gave us a free press, a completely independent observer to keep the people informed about the doings of the other three.

Once we understand the need for balance, it follows logically that no single authority should be able to decide what information should reach the public. Some readers ask us why the president's decisions on how best to protect the nation shouldn't govern us, and specifically our choices of what to publish. The answer is that in the American system of checks and balances, the president cannot be allowed to decide what the voters need to know to hold him accountable. A king may have such power, but the elected executive of a republic cannot, or we will have no more republic.

Labeling something "classified" or important to "national security" does not make it so. The government overclassifies with abandon. And the definition of "national security" is elusive. Some politicians act as though revealing any classified information threatens our nation's security, but that seems preposterous.

The Bush administration has been publicly toying with the idea of using the Espionage Act, passed by Congress in 1917 when the country was swept up in an emotional response to our entry into World War I, to prosecute journalists for disclosing classified information. The legislative history of the act convinces me that its authors never intended for it to be used to censor the press, and since World War I it has never been used for that purpose. Numerous legal scholars from right to left say that doing so would violate the First Amendment. But Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said recently that invoking the Espionage Act against the press "is a possibility."

I heard Gonzales's remark as an attempt at intimidation. Intimidation by classification already seems to be a hallmark of this administration, which has created classified secrets at an unprecedented pace -- 14 million in fiscal 2005, compared with 8 million in 2001, according to the National Archives. The Bush administration has encouraged the use of more than 60 new categories ("sensitive but unclassified," for example) to control the distribution of millions more facts and documents.

Steven Aftergood, who works on classification issues for the Federation of American Scientists, calls the administration's approach to secrets "a cultivation of fear as a policy driver." He adds: "We are being told that nothing is more important than the external threat that confronts us, and nothing is more valuable than security in the face of that threat." Aftergood calls this "craven, and an insult to the millions of Americans who have given their lives to defend this country."

For the Founders, the issue was freedom and how best to secure it. Addressing that point in his Pentagon Papers opinion, Justice Hugo Black captured the spirit that animates my profession in just two sentences:

"The government's power to censor the press was abolished [by the First Amendment] so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."

Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor of

The Washington Post. He served as the paper's managing editor from 1991 to 1998.

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