Before we get to the hypothetical part of this story, let us start with the true, but the nonetheless bizarre. Several years ago, I was asked to judge a State Department writing contest. The submissions consisted of cables sent to Washington by various ambassadors, including everything from Jerusalem and Cairo leading up to the Camp David accords. It was merely the story of the year.
And because of that, I declined the honor. I stared at the two shopping carts piled high with secret cables, went back to my office, conferred with both my conscience and my editors, and said no thanks. It was too good a story for me to keep the required oath of secrecy. Sooner or later, I would either have to write what I learned, or it would appear that I had.
Now to the hypothetical--or, to be more precise, a collision of the hypothetical with new Reagan administration security policies. Suppose I had signed the new oath saying that I would never leak government secrets. And then, suppose, that I picked up the paper and I saw that the secretary of state was saying something wrong--a lie. Suppose he was saying it and so was the president, and that these lies were being used to convince the country to support a particular course of action. What should I do?
Well, if I'm a government employe and I leak the truth to counter the lies, under a Reagan administration proposal I could go to jail. This could be the case even though I am doing nothing more than setting the record straight, telling the American public something it needs to know. Even if I avoid jail, I'm sure as shooting going to have a crimp put into my career. I could be ordered to take a lie detector test and then, presumably, asked anything under the sun. If I refused, I could be fired or, at the very least, reassigned to watch the potted plant in my office.
But what if I was no longer with the government and I wanted to write an article saying the president and his secretary of state were, ahem, liars? Well, under new Reagan administration rules, I would have to go to the government and ask permission to call the president and the secretary of state liars. There is a good chance that I would be refused this permission and told that the information I possess is so secret that even to hint at it would alter the balance of terror, risking the lives of children born and, of course, unborn. In other words, no.
Well, what if I went ahead and published anyway, but wrote the thing in such a way that no secrets were divulged? We know something about this because until recently, prepublication agreements were limited to the CIA and a former agent, Frank Snepp, broke one. He wrote critically about Vietnam. The government sued, making the agreement and not secrecy the issue. The court awarded all of Snepp's royalties to the government, making him the first author in history to hit the 100 percent tax bracket and, of course, making all his work for naught. Man cannot live on disclosures alone.
All this is not to say that there are not real leaks that can be either self-serving or damaging to national security. Not everyone is as selfless and downright noble as I (hypothetically) am, but the truth is we either don't know about the damaging leaks or the ones we know about simply are not damaging. (Publication of the Pentagon Papers, for instance, was not followed by the end of civilization as we know it. It was instead followed by an appreciation that some documents are labeled "secret" not because they are secret, but because they are embarrassing.)
Nevertheless, to meet this either nonexistent or nonproven threat, the Reagan administration has instituted a package of regulations and policies, saying, in effect, that leaks are bad and we should trust the government to tell us what we need to know. But as the hypothetical examples above make clear, not all leaks are bad and not all governments tell you what you need to know. In fact, there have never been leaks as bad as these efforts to contain them. There's nothing hypothetical about that. You can bet our open society on it--and lose.