Journalists, government, and the battle over information

“Secrets Protected, Secrets Exposed: The Balancing Act in Our Democracy” was the theme that drew alumni and others for a Duke Magazine event this past spring in a secrecy-minded place—Washington, D.C. The event centered on a discussion among alumni on both sides of the long-running debate about whether and how information should be withheld or made public in a free society: Sue Gordon ’80, deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, who also had a long stint with the CIA; Mark Mazzetti ’96, Washington investigations editor for The New York Times and author of The Way of the Knife, about the secret wars waged by the CIA and Pentagon; Wyndee Parker ’91, national-security adviser to the Office of the Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, and a one-time attorney at the CIA and FBI; and Craig Whitlock ’90, investigative reporter for The Washington Post, who has reported from more than sixty countries. The moderator was Peter Feaver, a Duke political science and public policy professor and director of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, who formerly worked on the staff of the White House National Security Council. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Feaver: What is it about this issue that you wish members of the government understood and acknowledged?

Whitlock: One thing is the degree to which journalists—at least those with reputable news organizations—work extremely hard to get our facts straight when it comes to very sensitive stories. We go to extraordinary lengths, before we publish, to seek verification or comment from people in official channels and to put information in the right context, to understand it, to review it, to make sure our understanding of it is correct. And to give the government a chance, if necessary, to make an argument that it should be withheld from public view.

Mazzetti: I would argue that secret things, classified things, are more central to how the United States conducts itself in the world than it ever has been. I would date that to September 11, 2001.

Feaver: Let me ask the inverse question to our colleagues from the intelligence community.

Gordon: What is not understood is that intelligence is about advantage. Do you know a little bit more, a little sooner, so that your decision-making is a little bit better? The decision to classify something is not capricious. It isn’t about protecting anyone from embarrassment.

Parker: When classified information related to sources and methods is disclosed, it can put lives at risk. It can put intelligence-collection platforms at risk, as well. And we have intelligence agreements with other nations. They often demand that we keep information they share with us secret; we do the same thing. So disclosure would harm our relations with a foreign government.

Feaver: Let me ask the journalists: What are the criteria by which you say, “The government is right about this.” And what’s the oversight mechanism if you make the judgment to publish incorrectly?

Mazzetti: There are different arguments that the government might make for withholding a story or details from a story, and they’re taken with different levels of seriousness. Maybe the request is, “Don’t publish this story, because lives will be lost, and this specifically is how.” But often, the argument is, “Don’t publish the story because it will be really embarrassing for this country or another country that helps us out on various things.” I’ll bring up the example of the WikiLeaks trove of information, particularly the diplomatic cables. So some ambassador had these thoughts about some country’s leader, and the argument was made that revealing that could complicate our diplomacy. That’s something we listen to. But diplomatic embarrassment or diplomatic complications are below the threshold when it comes to deciding not to publish. At the same time, there were things in those cables that we found ourselves redacting—the names of informants who had come into our embassies.

Whitlock: I used to cover the Pentagon. Once I was traveling with Leon Panetta, who was the defense secretary, and as we were flying into Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, a couple of his staff members came back to the press section of the plane. They said, “Tomorrow we’re going to visit this military base, but you can’t say where it is.” The base was Al Dhafra Air Base, and there’s a big U.S. military presence there. Our reaction was, “The secretary of defense is going there, and we can’t say where in the world he is?” The official line was, “Just say he’s somewhere in Southwest Asia.” The Emiratis didn’t like people knowing we have this giant base there, even though that had been reported on previously. In the end we had to cool our heels in the Emirates Palace Hotel, while Panetta’s remarks to the troops didn’t get any news coverage. We all understand the need to have discussions over very sensitive things. But a lot of the time it doesn’t rise to that level.

Feaver: But who holds you guys accountable?

Whitlock: When Mark or I write a story, our name is at the top. And it goes around the world to millions of readers. We’re accountable for it. If I get one comma wrong in that story, I hear about it. We hear about it from readers; we hear about it from the government.

Feaver: Is there something to the claim that the government routinely over-classifies information and thus keeps it out of the public eye?

Gordon: For one thing, there’s more intelligence and more people doing the work of intelligence, and so there’s more classification. But I want to return to the issue of holding reporters accountable. The one thing I object to is this notion that you’re the adjudicator of what’s important. Do you think that it’s really just a set of discrete events with no larger context? So much intelligence is rooted in relationships, and it’s not just a single event but also a relationship that can be compromised.

Feaver: How would you describe the evolution of this issue of secrecy with the past few administrations?

Whitlock: One measurable difference in the Obama administration versus the Bush administration is that the Justice Department under Obama was very aggressive in investigating unauthorized disclosures of information. The Justice Department’s prosecution of government officials talking to reporters escalated quite a bit.

Mazzetti: With Trump, you see a shift in the language, which is chilling. But as we’ve also seen, they’re having some difficulty keeping secrets.

Feaver: Did Obama’s prosecution effort dry up sources? Did it make the job harder?

Whitlock: The electronic trail has become a lot easier to surveil. When I was covering the Pentagon, if I did a story that somebody didn’t like, and they wanted to find out, “Well, who is Whitlock talking to?” it’s very easy to check anything with a .mil e-mail address to see if there is any interaction with my Washington Post e-mail address. So on sensitive stories, you have to go outside the official channels. We’re back to knocking on people’s doors. This isn’t necessarily to ask about classified information; it’s just to communicate around basic questions.

Gordon: One of the things we never talk about is what has happened in terms of what the intelligence agencies are doing in terms of transparency. While the secret piece is scintillating, what I see over that time is the amount of government information that is being made available openly—for example, specific measurements around exploration of the Arctic.

Parker: It gave people inside the intelligence community a lot of heartburn when President Obama decided that he would release all this information related to intelligence interrogations and detentions. And the Obama administration also decided to publicly explain the drone program, including the rationale and the legal justification under international law. It provided a basis for discussion that members of Congress didn’t necessarily have before. And so I think it was a positive step.

Whitlock: Sometimes the pushback is that we’re worried about the cost to our intelligence gathering. But is the overriding purpose to ensure that our intelligence-gathering capabilities are paramount? Is it that the American people should know what their government is up to?

Feaver: Does the public have a right to know who’s leaking to The New York Times and The Washington Post?

Whitlock: The public has a right to know insofar as both The Post and The Times can try to describe the motivation of somebody when they’re speaking anonymously. At the same time, we feel very strongly about protecting sources, because we want to keep channels of information open so that we can report the news. And there’s reason to be worried about retaliation.

Feaver: The other space in which secrets exists are in Apple, Google, Facebook, et cetera, who know an extraordinary amount about us. So do you think the public is wrongly worried about government secrets and governments spying on them, when they should be worried about corporations spying on them?

Parker: Recently in Congress, there was a measure to rescind privacy protections that the FCC has promulgated related to Internet service providers. That effort to rescind privacy protection caused some real concerns, because it’s through those avenues that we communicate our most sensitive information.

Mazzetti: Some of this does break down generationally. Younger people generally have an expectation that their information is everywhere.

Gordon: In a way, mistrust of the government is who we are; we’re a revolutionary people—that’s how we started. But the government doesn’t hold most of the data. Increasingly the private sector is going to, and statutes and policies are too slow to govern what they can do with that. What happens when all your genomic information can be known?

Whitlock: In the long term, that freaks me out. At least with the government, there are checks and balances. With global corporations, good luck applying those checks and balances.

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