So, what exactly was the classified information that President Trump revealed to Russian diplomats last week?
The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe reported Monday evening that Trump shared “details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft” and “described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot.” The president also disclosed the city in Islamic State territory where a U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.
But The Post did not publish everything its journalists learned, a decision the newspaper explained in Miller and Jaffe's report:
The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.
In an interview Tuesday, The Post's national editor, Scott Wilson, elaborated on how he and other editors made the call.
“In national security stories such as this one, we are constantly trying to balance the public's right to know and the context the public needs to understand what we're reporting against information that could jeopardize, first and foremost, people and, second, ongoing U.S. or allied intelligence and military operations,” Wilson said. “Our default setting is to publish and share what we know with readers, and it's a very high bar to get over. In this case, the details that we did withhold, we felt, were not essential for readers to fully understand the point of the story.”
The point of the story is, of course, that Trump made a highly questionable decision to give Russia sensitive information. The act of sharing the information is more important than the specifics of the information itself.
History is full of instances in which government officials, citing national security concerns, have asked newspapers not to publish certain details or even entire articles. Sometimes newspapers have honored these requests; other times not.
In 1960, seven months before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Miami Herald “had prepared a news story saying that the United States was planning to launch a military operation against Cuba,” the newspaper wrote in a 2015 retrospective. “But the paper's top management killed the story after CIA Director Allen Dulles said publishing it would hurt national security.”
The New York Times also learned of the planned invasion and even the approximate date. The Times went through with a story on April 7, 1961, but withheld what it knew about timing and also displayed the report in a less prominent position on its front page than originally planned.
The article “was shifted at the last moment from its position in the upper right corner as the lead story of the day,” Times reporter David W. Dunlap wrote in 2014. “It was further demoted in importance when the revised layout for Page 1 specified a headline one column wide rather than four columns.”
On June 13, 1971, the Times began publishing documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, that chronicled the history of the U.S. role in Indochina. The next day, Attorney General John N. Mitchell accused the newspaper of violating the Espionage Act and said further publication would cause “irreparable injury to the defense interests” of the nation.
The Times and The Washington Post, which also possessed the documents, resolved to keep publishing, anyway. But the government successfully petitioned for an injunction, which halted publication for 15 days, until the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the newspapers' right to publish.
In 2005, The Post reported that “the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe” and that “the secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe.”
It was a dramatic revelation — one that earned reporter Dana Priest a Pulitzer Prize — but The Post agreed not to identify the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials who, the paper explained, “argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.”
Also in 2005, the Times reported that “months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.” That report also won its authors, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize.
Its publication had been delayed for more than a year, however, in deference to George W. Bush administration worries about national security.
In the case of Monday's report on Trump's disclosure of classified information to Russia, Wilson said that Post editors were willing to leave out some details but felt strongly that the broad strokes of the president's action merited publication.
He said it “was important enough to make sure the public knew the way the president was doing business that fallout between the United States and its intelligence partners was overshadowed.”