If driving government officials crazy is a mark of reportorial success, then Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has to be the hottest reporter in town. His scoops based on "top secret" intelligence reports have been infuriating officials for years.
What upsets Pentagon and CIA officials is that Gertz's scoops often blow intelligence sources--especially communications intercepts and satellite reconnaissance systems that cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars to create.
In terms of reportorial hustle, it's hard to fault Gertz. He breaks dozens of big stories every year, and he's read carefully by people who follow national-security issues, not to mention the foreign spooks and military attaches around town. Yet precisely because he's so aggressive, Gertz poses the interesting question of what responsibility, if any, a journalist has to avoid blowing secrets.
The National Security Agency worries about the leak problem so much that a senior official testified about it in November to the House Intelligence Committee. The official said the NSA counted 40 instances in 1998 when its signals-intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities were disclosed for the first time in the media, and 34 instances during the first nine months of 1999. Gertz's stories accounted for many of these leaks, officials said.
This disclosure of NSA intelligence in the media "is a problem of monumental proportions and has caused . . . grave damage," the senior official told Congress. The leaks have "already resulted in loss of SIGINT access to information of extreme importance to U.S. national security," the official added.
The NSA certainly features regularly in Gertz's coverage. A Lexis-Nexis search lists 132 Gertz stories in the Times going back to 1989 that have mentioned the NSA. The most recent were two stories published Friday: One cited a top-secret June 9 NSA report on Chinese missile cooperation with Libya; the other cited a June 8 NSA report on how companies in Russia and Uzbekistan were selling missile parts to North Korea.
Good scoops, to be sure--about the deadly important topic of weapons proliferation. But the NSA may have a bit more difficulty collecting similar information in the future, after Friday's titillating stories. Unless people overseas are very stupid, they'll realize someone is reading their mail.
Now you can certainly argue that protecting secrets isn't a reporter's job; it's the responsibility of his sources, who have sworn to protect the classified information that comes into their hands. And you can argue, further, that there are times when information is so important--and the public has such a profound need to know--that secrecy worries become irrelevant. The "Pentagon Papers" were one obvious example. Though they were bulging with classified material, there was a vital public interest in their publication. But it's hard to make that public-interest case with some of the details in Gertz's stories. One example cited by the intelligence official is a Dec. 8 story, headlined "China targets Taiwan with 2nd missile base." It was based on a report by analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who had discovered a missile base at Xianyou, about 135 miles from Taiwan. Gertz crowed: "The report is based on satellite photographs and other sensitive intelligence."
After that story, the DIA filed a crime report with the FBI, describing the details of the unauthorized leak of classified information, according to the intelligence official. He noted that the following chilling sentence appeared at the end: "Disclosure of the information could result in the death of American service [personnel]."
"What's so infuriating," says one intelligence community official, "is his gratuitous and unnecessary specificity. He could make his point about China shipping technology to North Korea, or whatever, without saying it's a SIGINT intercept. He could push his agenda in a way that didn't jeopardize the sources."
So why doesn't the government do something to prosecute the folks who are leaking secrets to Gertz? The answer seems to be that the Justice Department, perhaps wisely, wants to avoid a politically explosive hunt for a journalist's sources. Justice discussed whether to investigate Gertz's sources several years ago, according to one former top executive, but officials decided they couldn't identify and prosecute the leakers without wiretapping Gertz, which they wouldn't do.
When I asked Gertz Friday why he makes so many references to sensitive NSA material, he gave the standard reportorial answer: "When I get information, I don't care where it comes from or why it came to me, but [whether] it's news and important." He went on: "It's clearly a balancing act. We weigh news-gathering imperatives versus national-security concerns. As a reporter, I lean toward publication."
That's a good response, and one I've used myself, on occasion. Basically, Gertz is saying that he's just doing his job. And by professional measures, he's doing it pretty damn well.
But his case raises this conundrum: Are there times when a reporter's professional ethics should give way to other claims? I don't know the right answer, but it's a question worth asking.