‘When and why I reveal secrets’

I want to see the editor of a major U.S. newspaper who is covering and uncovering classified government antiterrorism programs write a piece under the headline: “When and why I will reveal secrets.” For I have not yet seen a satisfactory answer to that obvious and essential question in any of the many letters and editorials those editors have been writing lately. If journalism is about upholding standards, then let’s know what those standards are.

It’s not a hard piece to write, I think. Begin here:

I will reveal a secret government program when I can show that it violates the law or abuses the power given under that law. I will reveal such a program when I can demonstrate that it is dangerously ineffective or incompetent in its design or execution. And I will not reveal such secrets unless I can show a compelling need to know and newsworthiness, and unless I can show that doing so will not put innocent lives and welfare at risk. If revealing secrets puts the nation, its agents, or soldiers at risk, I will not reveal them.

That’s a start. I do hope these editors edit and amend that because we should know what their standards are so we can better judge both their reporting and their critics.

Instead, in today’s joint oped from NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and LA Times Editor Dean Baquet, we see a continuation of the theme of Keller’s last latter (my reaction to that here), which doesn’t so much say why they revealed the secrets but instead argues why their critics are wrong to complain.

They say that it is right and necessary for the press to report on what government is doing — and, of course, I agree — but they do not address the limits of that, other than to say that they know their limits and have not revealed other secrets in the past. So shouldn’t we know those limits as well? For if we don’t, then aren’t we merely trading blind faith in politicians, properly balanced by the press, with blind faith in editors, balanced by nothing more than government attacks — and now, perhaps, bloggers? Here’s how it works now: The editors reveal; the politicians accuse them of everything from jeopardizing programs to risking national security to committing treason; the editors and their defenders shoot back at the politicians. And we in the public are left without a roadmap: This government secret had to be revealed because…. This government secret could not be revealed because…. Shouldn’t the editors give us that map?

In his last letter, Keller tried to argue that it was not the job of The Times to judge the programs’ legality or effectiveness. Yet — I asked before — isn’t the decision about whether to violate the government secrets and reveal the workings of the program based on that very sort of judgment? Otherwise, why was the secret revealed? What made it necessary and newsworthy? Was it because the program was illegal or abusive or incompetent or dangerous? Where is the standard?

The Times editorial this week (not from Keller, of course), continued the specious argument made by Keller and then by Times op-ed writers Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey that the terrorists — and, one assumes, a clueful public — already knew that the government was tracing financial transactions — wisely — to both find terrorists and cut them off from their resources. So if everyone already knew it, they argue, then what’s the harm of the disclosure? I’ll respond: If everybody already knew it, then where’s the news value? If we all knew that the government was tracking transactions — and that it was legal and effective — then what is the point in revealing the specifics of the program? And what is the risk? Once again: What made this necessary and newsworthy? Where is the standard?

In today’s letter, Keller and Baquet make more arguments worth addressing.

They argue that they and their staffs are “not neutral in the struggle against terrorism.” Well, I would hope that needn’t be said. But perhaps it should be. Stipulated.

They talk about the special role of the press:

We apply the principles of journalism individually as editors of independent newspapers. We agree, however, on some basics about the immense responsibility the press has been given by the inventors of the country. . . .

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, in the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”

As that sliver of judicial history reminds us, the conflict between the government’s passion for secrecy and the press’s drive to reveal is not of recent origin.

But as they themselves make clear, it is not the press’ role to reveal everything it knows. There are limits. There are standards. So again: What are they?

And let’s be clear that the freedom and responsibility supposedly given to the press was truly given to the people. The press itself has no special franchise on that freedom. Indeed, if the press is a check on government, then the people — not the government — is the rightful check on the press. So the people deserve to know not only how government operates in our name but how the press operates in our name.

They continue:

Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price.

In recent years our papers have brought you a great deal of information the White House never intended for you to know — classified secrets about the questionable intelligence that led the country to war in Iraq, about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the transfer of suspects to countries that are not squeamish about using torture, about eavesdropping without warrants.

Yes, of course, it is the job of journalists to help us judge our government’s work. But, of course, secrecy puts limits on that. The list that follows is, well, ironic, since some of the questionable intelligence that led the country to war came from The Times. And I’ll get to the “eavesdropping” in a moment. They continue:

As Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, asked recently in the pages of that newspaper: “You may have been shocked by these revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America’s name, shouldn’t Americans understand how it is being waged?”

Well, I’d also rather that my enemies not know how that war is being waged.

Next, Keller and Baquet ask: “How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?” Good question. But they answer it not with principles, with standards, but instead with process described generically: how tips come in, how reporters report, how conversations occur with government officials in charge of these programs. But we still are not told why this secret is a story and that one is not. They do not reveal their judgment. They say:

Finally, we weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public’s interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information.

I’m not asking for a magic formula. I am asking for principles. Here’s their kicker:

We make our best judgment.

In short: Trust us.

When we come down in favor of publishing, of course, everyone hears about it. Few people are aware when we decide to hold an article. But each of us, in the past few years, has had the experience of withholding or delaying articles when the administration convinced us that the risk of publication outweighed the benefits. Probably the most discussed instance was The New York Times’s decision to hold its article on telephone eavesdropping for more than a year, until editors felt that further reporting had whittled away the administration’s case for secrecy.

And the public — checking the press — has asked again and again why that story was too dangerous to reveal for a year and then suddenly OK to reveal. The only answer so far: Trust us.

They then list other stories they have not revealed — not explaining why — and conclude:

We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices — to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.

Nor, gentlemen, is it one that we the people wholly surrender to you, the press.

That is why we deserve to know more about your standards and your process. That is not only because we have a right to know what you do In Nomine Publicoin nomen publicus [please do correct my automated Latin; thanks for the correction] but also because we, too, have a voice that matters. Many people questioned Judith Miller’s WMD reporting and think how much better it would have been if those questions had been heard and answered. Note that USA Today just backed off elements of its NSA telephone story, after the cat was out of the bag. And about the NSA telephone program, I was not alone suggesting that this “eavesdropping,” as The Times calls it — a purposely loaded word that implies spooks are listening in on our conversations — was more about data mining to find patterns and thus, we hope, anomalies than to hear about who’s having an affair. In both the NSA phone and the Swift banking programs, it seems apparent that you need to analyze a body of data to find the outliers who may be worth investigating. This isn’t as simple as it is being portrayed: as another violation of our individual privacy. I don’t consider the analysis of the aggregated data to which I contribute with my individual actions a violation of my privacy. And if this catches or stops terrorists — as many, including the 9/11 Commission, believe that tracking and analyzing financial transactions can do — then I say it is worth it. But neither is the questioning of these programs as simple as it is being portrayed; it’s not treason.

That is the sort of substantive discussion we should be having. Instead, we are stuck in a simplistic did-not/did-too shouting match in which the papers reveal what they choose to reveal, and then the politicians call names, and then the papers respond to those names — instead of discussing the real questions and issues. It is up to the editors, I think, to set that tone. They have the ability and I suggest they start by writing pieces under the headline above: When and why will you reveal secrets?

: LATER: See Greg Sargent at Eat the Press on the sorry state of the conversation. He says that these editors are doing nothing but defending themselves against “wildly irrational” and “profoundly demented” charges. Yes, which is why I say they should be setting the agenda for this conversation based on their own principles and standards. See above.

: On Meet the Press just now, William Safire answers the rhetorical question, ‘Who elected the press to decide what stays secret?’ with the answer, ‘The founding fathers did.’ This sense of holy constitutional entitlement weakens when we are all, as we should be, the press.