Why Classified Secrets Should Be Kept From the Public
Gabriel Schoenfeld discusses his new book 'Necessary Secrets'
In his latest book,
Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law,
Schoenfeld traces the tense history between the news media and the government over disclosures of classified information. He argues that the
Is it the responsibility of the press to keep the government's secrets?
Along with the public's right to know, there is the public's right not to know. The public has a right, through electing a government, to have some information kept from them and from our enemies. That's why we have secret methods to penetrate enemy communications. When the press publishes those secrets, it tramples on the public's right not to know.
Yet the government frequently uses claims of secrecy to avoid scrutiny and to conceal damaging information.
Sure. Secrecy can facilitate renegade governmental activity, as we saw in Watergate and the Iran-contra affair. It can also be a breeding ground for corruption, like the case of Congressman
There are very few years in the past century when the country hasn't been involved in a military conflict. When, in your mind, should the press abandon a wartime mentality?
I don't actually have a ready answer, because it's a fluid situation.
Have journalists become less willing to keep the government's secrets?
Journalists have traditionally been much more careful about what they've published. There are many cases of journalists discussing with the government what they should and should not publish in order not to cause damage. I argue that there has been a radicalization of journalists, to the point where there is no longer that type of care and consideration put into decisions about whether or not to publish secret information.
I think that you're cherry picking a bit. Lichtblau has gone into more detail than that.
Okay, but it is the phrase "above all else" that is important in this instance. Publishing the Swift story was an example of gross irresponsibility.
To whom are journalists responsible?
That's the point. Journalists are not responsible to the public. They are responsible to their editors, publishers, and so on. And they have incentives, sometimes competitive ones, that are not the same as the public's interests.
We actually do have what amounts to a State Secrets Act. There are three classes of secrets that the
You don't mention the other stories, like the exposure of secret CIA prisons or waterboarding.
There are three types of leaks: inconsequential, seriously damaging, and the grey areas where reasonable people can disagree. I talk about cases in the book, like the Swift banking and NSA cases, because they were seriously damaging. In the case of the CIA prisons story, reasonable people can disagree. I'm less troubled by those stories that could be seen as a public service. I'm not an absolutist on this.
How can we know which cases fall into which categories?
In the case of the NSA wiretap story, even Democrats like
Can we trust their claims? They were in charge of a program that may have violated the law.
It's tough, but we have to give deference to people like General Hayden, who was head of the NSA and later the CIA, who said that these disclosures hurt critical capabilities. In a time of war, the press has to think twice and thrice.
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