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Keynote address: 'Government secrecy and the press'

By Jack Nelson

Editor’s note: This is an edited text of veteran journalist Jack Nelson’s speech at the National FOI Day conference on March 14, 2003, at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va.

Talking about government secrecy to this audience is much like taking coals to Newcastle. Many of you know more about the subject than I do. In fact, I interviewed several of you when I was doing research for the paper I wrote on the subject while attending Harvard University as a Shorenstein fellow last semester.

I am glad, though, to have this opportunity because I feel deeply that today excessive secrecy together with the government’s accumulation of more power seriously threatens press freedom and other democratic values. And the threat grows as the government presses its war on terrorism and prepares to invade Iraq.

Of course, government secrecy is as old as government. In a half-century of reporting I’ve constantly encountered it at local, state and national levels. Once elected, many politicians think they own their offices and can run them pretty much behind closed doors.

I vividly recall as a young investigative reporter for the Atlanta Constitution attempting to attend a Wayne County Commission meeting in Jesup, Georgia, and being told by a commissioner: “There are some things the commission does that the public is not supposed to know about.’’

Not surprisingly I’ve heard essentially the same thing when reporting on government officials in Biloxi, Miss., Atlanta and many other cities — but especially in Washington, D.C., where today the government declares there are a lot of things the public is not supposed to know about.

In Washington, I’ve seen presidents whose obsessions with secrecy tainted — or even helped unravel — their presidencies:

  • Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.
  • Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up and the secret bombing of Cambodia.
  • Ronald Reagan and the Iran/contra scandal and cover-up.
  • George H.W. Bush, who pleaded he was out of the loop.
  • Of course, the Washington press has always had to struggle with official secrecy. What is different today is that not since Richard Nixon three decades ago has a president been as secretive or as combative about leaks of classified information as George W. Bush.

    And President Bush has gone beyond just being extremely secretive about the conduct of the government’s business. In the name of fighting terrorism, he has amassed powers and wrapped them in a cloak of resilience to normal oversight by Congress and the judiciary.

    No president since I’ve been a reporter has so tried to change the very structure of government to foster secrecy.

    No matter who’s in power the press always has an obligation to be aggressive in trying to pierce secrecy that denies the public’s right to know how its government is operating. Today it has a special obligation for at least three reasons:

  • First, the excessive secrecy and consolidation of powers of investigation, surveillance, arrest and extended imprisonment.
  • Second, the same political party dominates all three branches of government and may well hold power for at least the next six years.
  • And third, the opposition party for the most part has been as timid and divided as I can remember.
  • Meanwhile, the press corps and the editorial voices of most newspapers have been less than aggressive in fighting secrecy. There are exceptions, but for the most part we’ve seen relatively few trenchant news accounts — or editorial expressions of outrage — over the government’s policies.

    Anyone who really wants to know about the extent of official secrecy today should consult the Internet, not the daily press. Also, the most incisive accounts of the government’s accumulation of power and its threats to civil liberties are found in the British press, such as The Economist.

    The Economist supports an attack on Iraq. Nevertheless it has warned about excessive secrecy and what it calls our government’s “appetite for new domestic policing powers and apparent impatience about civil liberties.’’ And it discussed in detail five areas of particular concern:

    Extending surveillance; guilt by association; targeting immigrants; redefining due process, and resisting oversight. The Economist concluded there is reason to fear that the heavy-handed use of the new powers could be counterproductive — particularly with immigrants and foreign-born Americans.

    For some reason, whether because of 9/11 and terrorist threats or the looming war with Iraq or the popularity of the president or the fear of being labeled unpatriotic, the traditional American press — again with a few exceptions — has virtually looked the other way when it has come to government secrecy.

    The daily press generally ignores information on the growth of secrecy that the government itself puts out. A case in point: Actions to classify documents in fiscal 2001 increased by 44% to an astounding 33,020,000, according to the Information Security Oversight Office’s annual report.

    The office’s annual report contains a wealth of statistics about classification and predicts the upward trend in stamping “secret” on documents will continue because of the war on terrorism.

    [Other] organizations [also] monitor official secrecy. The Federation of American Scientists [has a] superb secrecy project, and its Web site … carries reports as frequently as several times a week.

    A citizen who really wants to know how extensively the government has extended secrecy policies since 9/11 can find it on the Web site of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

    I know you’re all aware of the committee’s work and have been given copies of its latest report detailing the numerous policies of secrecy adopted since the terrorist attacks. But most people, unless they’ve seen the reports on the Internet, probably are unaware of them because the traditional press pays little attention.

    With the media not reporting extensively on the problem and how it violates citizens’ rights, the public’s attitude is increasingly sympathetic to secrecy. In fact, polls show that on that issue, the public identifies with the government, not the press.

    Talk shows and letters to the editor reflect that many people are indignant about press disclosure of secret plans for war. That’s at least partly because the press almost never points out that the information has been leaked by administration officials for political reasons and/or as part of their war strategy.

    Many of those leaks come from the Defense Department, where Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been among the most vociferous in denouncing leakers. Rumsfeld may have co-authored FOIA as a young congressman, but now he talks about jailing leakers — at least those not leaking with government approval.

    It’s understandable that terrorism and plans for war in Iraq have increased the need for secrecy in some cases; much of it (is) justifiable. But even in those circumstances keeping the public in the dark often is inexcusable when basic civil rights are denied. Cases in point include closed-door proceedings that deny immigrants and terrorist suspects their civil rights and in some cases keep them imprisoned indefinitely.

    Equally serious are cases that involve the government’s secret discussions about plans not only to initiate war, but contingency plans to be the first to use nuclear weapons. This subject has not been debated in Congress or covered widely in the press even though a few newspapers have published credible information about the issue.

    A case in point: official discussions about the possible first use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. We only know about it because William Arkin, an expert military analyst for the Los Angeles Times, disclosed it recently in the Times.

    The government has not denied the report, but the press has done little to follow up on it. And there’s been no public debate about such a momentous change in thinking about the use of nuclear weapons.

    Sen. Edward Kennedy did write an op-ed column for the L.A. Times and pointed out that President Bush passed up an opportunity in his State of the Union speech to explain why “such a radical departure from long-standing policy is justified or necessary.’’

    Kennedy warned that the notion of a first-strike use of nuclear weapons in Iraq carries the seeds of a world disaster and that “a change of this magnitude should be brought to Congress for debate before the U.S. goes to war.’’

    Official discussions of a possible policy of such potentially catastrophic consequences also ought to be widely reported and debated in the media. But there are no signs of that other than Kennedy’s column and a recent Senate speech by Robert Byrd. Byrd described the Senate as strangely silent on war issues, “paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.’’

    He declared that high-level administration officials had refused to take nuclear weapons off the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq, and (Byrd) asked, “What could be more destabilizing and unwise …?’’

    Although the press generally ignored the Byrd speech, it was widely circulated on the Internet and the L.A. Times reprinted it almost in its entirety. You could read it in The New York Times, but as a full-page ad bought by an anti-war group.

    Another case involves the planning of a possible military strike against nuclear sites in North Korea. And we only know of that because of Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in The New York Times under the headline: “Secret, scary plans.’’

    Kristof quotes officials as saying that so far the discussions are only a matter of contingency planning, but there is talk of using nuclear weapons to neutralize hardened artillery positions aimed at Seoul, the South Korean capital.

    I think most people would agree with Kristof that that’s pretty scary. But once again there’s been little follow-up in the press and no debate in Congress.

    The failure of the press to be aggressive in monitoring government secrecy didn’t begin with the George W. Bush administration. In fact, the media was caught napping three years ago when Congress, for the first time in history, passed a measure that would have made it a crime to leak any classified information — no matter how harmless or even whether it had been improperly classified.

    Congress held no public hearings on the measure and the press virtually ignored it. After it passed, both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran short inside-page stories based on an [Associated Press] dispatch.

    Had it not been for a last-minute campaign led by Scott Armstrong, a fierce free-press advocate, and Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel, the measure would have become law. They enlisted major media executives, First Amendment advocates and Clinton administration officials to persuade President Clinton to veto a measure he had actually supported.

    Strobe Talbott, former Time correspondent and Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, described the bill as “pernicious for all kinds of reasons.’’ And he carried that message to his long-time friend, the president. Both Talbott and Kenneth Bacon, Defense Department spokesman, told the White House they constantly used classified information to brief reporters and would be subjected to possible prosecution if the measure became law.

    Clinton, after studying the matter, said his administration had not thoroughly examined the measure, that it was “badly flawed,’’ and that the public’s right to know outweighed any national security concerns.

    Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., the Washington Post publisher and a key figure in the campaign, later said Clinton, after vetoing the bill, told him, “We let that one slip by us.’’

    It slipped by the press as well, of course, and so did the behind-the-scene story of how a concerted campaign of administration officials and free-press advocates had succeeded in getting the measure vetoed.

    Before closing, I want to talk briefly about a group of government officials and media representatives known simply as the “dialogue.’’

    For the past 18 months they have been holding periodic discussions about how to protect the most sensitive national secrets without interfering with the right of the press to cover government operations.

    I went into some detail about the dialogue in the paper I wrote at Harvard. But I want to mention it now for a couple of reasons. It gives me an opportunity to say something positive about both the press and the government and how together they have made a good-faith effort to resolve a major secrecy issue. And it’s another case where you could only read about it on the Internet.

    The dialogue was organized against a backdrop of renewed efforts to enact the anti-leak legislation and threats by some government officials to seek jail sentences for unauthorized leaks of classified information. The organizers once again were Scott Armstrong and Jeffrey Smith.

    The dialogue has included 35 members. Among them are 14 government officials, four former government officials, three congressional observers, 12 media representatives, and the facilitators — Armstrong and Smith.

    Senior officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Security Council and the Justice Department have participated.

    Although their meetings have been off the record, both media and government representatives spoke on the record to me about their sessions and what they have accomplished, because they view their meetings as positive for the most part.

    No one expects the tension between the media and the government over the unauthorized disclosure of classified information to disappear. But from all accounts by both sides the discussions have made some progress in limiting the tension.

    Both sides say that by discussing specific cases they have come to a better understanding of the other’s concerns. Media representatives have learned more about which secrets are the most sensitive, and government officials have learned more about the media’s need to sometimes use unauthorized leaks to responsibly cover government.

    They generally have agreed that both sides can fulfill their responsibilities in specific cases if the media can find a way to delete some of the most sensitive data without changing the thrust of a story. And there have been a number of cases where that has happened.

    They also have talked about cases where relations became strained when the press published stories based on secrets despite government objections that the data undermined national security. For example, one case involved the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publish a story about the CIA recruiting Iranian-American businessmen to act as informers after returning from trips to Iran.

    CIA officials told the Times it should not publish stories about any ongoing CIA operation. But Times editors opted for publication after concluding the CIA had not made a compelling argument about the specific case. The CIA complained that the Times story hurt an ongoing operation, but the Times contended the CIA recruitment effort already was well known in the city’s large Iranian-American community.

    The dialogue can do little to prevent such continuing conflicts between the media and the government. And the success of the sessions also is limited by the relatively small number of media representatives involved.

    Not only that, but some media and government folks are not sold on the idea of the two sides meeting to discuss the issue. Some of my friends in the media, apparently concerned the press might negotiate away its right to publish pertinent information, have asked whether I think it’s a good idea. I obviously do for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

    In addition the sessions have had one major success: helping head off the renewed attempts last year to get Congress to pass the anti-leaks legislation. Members of an interagency task force appointed to study the proposed measure attended several dialogue sessions where the subject was discussed at length.

    Later a senior justice official told me the sessions were “extraordinarily constructive’’ and a key to the (Clinton) administration’s decision to abandon the anti-leaks measure.

    Despite the dialogue’s success, neither it nor any other effort by the press and government officials to resolve secrecy issues will count for much as long as the Bush administration persists in shrouding its actions in secrecy.

    In trying to pierce that secrecy, journalists, as Ted Gup writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “must be willing to withstand withering criticism, whether from the administration, be it Bush or Rumsfeld or Ashcroft, or from that portion of the public that is ready to savage any reporter who questions the party line.’’

    Journalists face a government today that demands to know a lot more about its citizens while restricting the rights of citizens to know about their government.

    The Irish government recently proposed a bill to restrict the public’s right to see its papers. In closing I want to cite an opposition party official’s criticism of the Irish government’s act because the words could apply to the American government today.

    The official said the bill meant “material capable of causing political embarrassment is to be sheltered from the critical gaze of the public. This is a government afraid of the public knowing too much.’’

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