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When Should the Press Disclose National Security Secrets?

By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column takes a look at those situations where Post editors agreed to a request to keep information out of the paper. It doesn’t happen often. But there are rare instances when stories are killed, delayed or altered. And as you might guess, some of them involve concerns about national security.

It’s not uncommon for top-level administration or U.S. intelligence officials to argue that publication will damage national security. And when The Post or other news organizations disagree and publish, these same officials – often supported by members of Congress and the public – complain loudly. Sometimes, they even threaten to prosecute reporters.

At a “First Amendment Summit” at the National Press Club several years ago, former acting CIA director John E. McLaughlin noted that in assessing true damage from national security disclosures, “where you stand on this depends on where you sit.” If you’re in the intelligence community, he said, you don’t want anything disclosed that would risk intelligence-gathering, even in a small way.

But he acknowledged that many disclosures have been “embarrassing, but not harmful.” Indeed, there have been numerous instances where leaks of national security information were authorized by high-level government officials in an attempt to spin the press or sway adversaries.

University of Chicago distinguished professor Geoffrey R. Stone, a noted authority on national security disclosures, told me this week that it is difficult to assess instances where publishing secret information has “materially damaged” the nation. “That’s much too vague a concept,” he said.

But, he said, “there is no clear example of any instance in which the press has published classified information where the publication has caused direct, immediate and grave harm to the United States.”

By Andy Alexander  | May 29, 2009; 4:14 PM ET
 
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Comments

"But, he said, “there is no clear example of any instance in which the press has published classified information where the publication has caused direct, immediate and grave harm to the United States.”

Well that's some pretty narrow criteria.

Posted by: bobmoses | May 29, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

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