Hustler's America

What’s the point of keeping classified information from the public?

Gabriel Schoenfeld is well-known for the logic logic he uses in his writing. As a scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, a conservative think tank, it’s only fitting that he’s also a chess master. It is in this vein that Schoenfeld traces the tense history between news media and government over classified information in Necessary Secrets: National Security, The Media, And The Rule Of Law. It is his contention that the New York Times should have been prosecuted for publishing classified information in stories about the NSA’s controversial wiretapping programme and another piece about tracking transactions through the international banking linkup known as Swift. Excerpts:

Is it the press’ job to keep government secrets a secret?

In addition to the right of the public to know, there is also the right of the public to be in the dark. It is the right of the people to keep some information hidden from them and our enemies through the process of electing a government. So we’ve devised a secret strategy to break into enemy communication channels. The right of the public not to know is violated when the press publishes such information.

To avoid scrutiny and to conceal damaging information, government officials frequently use the claim of secrecy.

Sure. We saw this in Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals, where renegade government activity was facilitated by secrecy. One example of this is Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who used classified [funding] earmarks to enrich himself and those who were close to him. However, since September 11, 2001, we’ve been engaged in a war where secrecy has become one of our most important national defense tools. While this is the case in our time, national-security leaks are commonplace.

Only a handful of years in the last century have been free of military conflict for the United States. Where in your opinion should journalists stop acting like they’re in a warzone?

Because the situation is constantly changing, I don’t have a ready answer.

Is it true that journalists are less inclined to protect the privacy of government officials?

Journalists have traditionally been much more cautious about what they publish, and this is no longer the case. There have been many instances of journalists working with the government to determine what information they should and should not publish. Journalists, in my opinion, have become radicalized to the point where decisions about whether or not to publish classified information are no longer made with the same care and consideration. New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, who wrote both the NSA wiretapping story and the Swift banking story, explains that the Swift story was one of his favorites because it “was above all else, an interesting yarn.” A story like this should not be published for that reason alone.

Cherry-picking is, in my opinion, a bit excessive. In any case, Lichtblau has gone into greater depth.

This case is all about that wording, however: above all. The publication of Swift’s story was a gross example of irresponsibility.

Who holds journalists accountable for their work?

I believe that this is the key to understanding the situation. Journalists owe no allegiance to the people they cover. They owe a debt of loyalty to their superiors, such as their editors and publishers. In addition, they have incentives that are not aligned with the public’s interests.

As a result, the United States does not have a State Secrets Act.

We do, in fact, have a State Secrets Act in place. According to Congress, three types of secrets require extra safeguards: the identities of intelligence agents, nuclear weapon designs, and the specifics of telecommunication intelligence.

Other stories, such as waterboarding and CIA prisons, aren’t mentioned.

A leak can fall into one of three categories: inconsequential, damaging, or somewhere in between. Cases like the Swift banking and NSA cases are discussed in the book because they were extremely damaging. It’s possible for sane people to disagree on the CIA prisons story. It doesn’t bother me as much when a story is presented as a service to the public. I’m not a firm believer in this position.

For example, how do we know which incidents fall into which categories?

Even Democrats like Jane Harman, who was on the House Intelligence Committee at the time, said that the publication of the NSA wiretap story had a negative impact on critical capabilities. CIA director Michael Hayden (at the time) made the same statement.

Why should we believe what they say? In charge of a program that may have broken the law, they are now being investigated.

People like Gen. Hayden who served as head of the National Security Agency and later the CIA have said that these disclosures have harmed critical capabilities. Even in the best of times, the press has to be careful.

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