Newspapers strive to provide as much news as possible to their readers, and military organizations strive to provide as much security to the citizenry as they can. In carrying out their respective responsibilities, tensions occasionally explode into incidents, and last week Washingtonians suddenly found a hot space-shuttle dispute on their front pages.
Who was right? Who was wrong?
A brief chronology might help. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had asked news organizations not to speculate about the military purpose and payload of the next shuttle mission, scheduled for Jan. 23, a step which, some observers believe, alerted the Soviet Union to its importance and waved a red flag before the media. His request represented a major change from the openness of the NASA launches in the past.
On Dec. 17, a NASA-Pentagon briefing was held, which The Post did not attend. That night, CBS reporter David Martin told a national television audience that "a new generation of intelligence satellite" was involved in the Jan. 23 flight. (No public attack followed by Secretary Weinberger on CBS.)
Post editors decided to pull together what was already noted in technical journals and congressional hearings, and to tap other sources. Some sensitive information was withheld, and the resulting story was given only secondary placement on the front page last Wednesday. The denunciation from Defense Secretary Weinberger was unexpected.
In a follow-up story on Thursday, The Post quoted some congressional testimony and the Nov. 5 issue of the trade magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology on the shuttle. The magazine reported the shuttle's first military cargo would be "heavy." The Post's story was more specific, putting its weight in the 30,000-pound category and its cost at $300 million. The magazine said it would be propelled into an orbit that would keep the satellite stationary above one spot. The Post story said it would make possible electronic surveillance of the western Soviet Union and could include radio signals from Soviet missile tests "that could be used to verify compliance with arms control agreements." The magazine had said the satellites would be used for communication, missile early warning or intelligence-radio interception. The Post described it as "the most important and largest of the so-called signals intelligence" satellites.
Did the story tell possible adversaries things they don't already know or could not deduce easily. I don't know.
The New York Times quoted Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former vice- chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as saying, "I saw nothing in that article that you wouldn't just naturally know if you knew anything at all about this subject." On the other hand, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the new committee vice-chairman, said if The Post article were accurate, the information would be of value to the Soviet Union.
Last week, The Post reported that there had been an effort to contact assistant secretary of defense for public information, Michael I. Burch, before publication of the original report. Burch denied receiving word of The Post's 3 p.m. call.
Should The Post have held the story for a day and given the Pentagon a chance to react? I think it should have. This also would have provided an opportunity for the Defense Department to spell out reasons for placing a "national security" label on the satellite. While The Post might still have gone forward with publication, it would have done so with the benefit of more information, and perhaps additional details might have been omitted if Pentagon arguments had been persuasive
It is true that editors and reporters have lived through some gross abuses of the "national security" label in recent years. Experienced reporters recall that it has been invoked to cloak Pentagon episodes of cost overruns, equipment defects and even a military massacre in Vietnam, as well as the Pentagon Papers. Readers may recall that President Nixon refused to talk about Watergate initially because he said "national security" was involved.
The "get it first" spirit that seems to permeate journalism has to be restrained, particularly when "national security" is involved. A day's delay is a wise investment in such serious matters.