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Does The Post Withhold Information About Itself?

By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column looked at those rare instances when The Post has agreed to a request to withhold publication of information. That prompted a call this morning from a reader who asked a good question: Does The Post ever withhold publication of information about itself?

I posed that question last week to former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. when I interviewed him for the column. He told me that during his quarter century as a top editor at The Post, there had “never been a case” when a reporter, editor or executive succeeded in having the paper withhold publication of information that might prove embarrassing to them. As an example, Downie said he’d alerted The Post’s gossip columnists in 1996 when he separated from his wife after 25 years of marriage. I checked The Post’s archives and confirmed that a brief mention was made in “The Reliable Source” in the fall of 1996.

In late 2007, The Post carried a story when Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham announced that he and his wife of 40 years had separated. That story appeared not long after The Post reported on an SEC filing that showed Graham had given $77 million in company stock to his wife.

During my four months as ombudsman, I’ve found The Post to be honest in reporting on the steady flow of bad financial news about itself. This includes stories about financial losses and buyouts. If you know of instances where The Post has withheld important information about itself, let me know (ombudsman@washpost.com).

Sunday’s column also noted instances where The Post has been asked by top government officials to withhold publication of information – in whole or in part – on grounds that disclosure would damage national security.

In some cases, the government has pleaded to withhold information that already is widely known.

One example was a 1992 Post Magazine story that prompted concerns about revealing the details of a huge underground bunker at the posh Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. Reporter Ted Gup wrote about the enormous facility, with its two-foot-thick walls reinforced with steel, that was to house members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. The plan seemed to have some flaws. One was that lawmakers would have been asked to leave their spouses and children behind – highly unlikely. Another was that it was not exactly clear how, given the suddenness of a nuclear attack, the government hoped to whisk hundreds of members of Congress to the remote location five hours’ drive from Washington in the Allegheny Mountains.

But the biggest problem seemed to be maintaining secrecy about this supposedly top secret facility in a small town where many locals had actually helped to construct it.

As Gup wrote in his award-winning piece, “the existence of some kind of hidden government installation there was widely known. One former government official says he was told that so many people in the White Sulphur Springs area knew about the facility that the government dispatched two men who had not been briefed on the project to mingle with the locals, posing as hunters, to learn just how much was known and what was being said. According to the official, the two returned to Washington a few days later with so many details about the facility that they had to be given top-secret clearance.”

By Andy Alexander  | June 1, 2009; 2:54 PM ET
 
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