When News Is Classified

In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of stories that test the boundaries of publishing when classified data is involved. The NSA wiretapping affair, phone companies handing over records to intelligence agencies, and the tracking of the SWIFT financial transactions. Now, the deans of several big dog journalism schools are weighing in with an op-ed in the Washington Post: When in Doubt, Publish.

On the whole, they present a decent argument that is fully conveyed in the opening sentence, “It is the business — and the responsibility — of the press to reveal secrets.” How I wish the press would undertake that responsibility more often. A full reading of the article, however, seems to water down the premise. They describe the journalist’s dilemma as, “choosing between the risk that would result from disclosure and the parallel risk of keeping the public in the dark.” But the risk of keeping the public in the dark, while significant, is not the only risk that lack of disclosure portends.

By choosing to suppress information that is deemed classified, the press is enabling the government’s proclivity for avoiding oversight. The deans acknowledge that governments have made national security claims in the past, when all they were really concerned about was their own political necks. But it goes even deeper than that. Since the executive branch gets to decide what gets classified, they are in the position of being able to cover up criminal acts by simply classifying the evidence. We’ve even seen variations of this in the legal arena with investigations into the administration that were halted when Justice Department lawyers were prohibited from pursuing leads because they lacked security clearances, the issuance of which is also within the purview of the administration being investigated.

Jay Rosen at PressThink, tackles the question of how to cover a classified war. The essay is illuminating and worth reading in full (but stay out of the comments. After the first couple of dozen they get trampled by trolls). Rosen unveils an administration fighting a war that has no generals or governing authority. But the War on Terror, nonetheless, has operations that are shielded from the public by classification. When the New York Times raised questions about those operations, congress passed a resolution condemning the media for endangering national security. At the same time, we have pundits like William Bennett asking, “Who elected the media?” to decide what information the public is entitled to receive. The question itself is irrelevant. The press gets its rights from the Constitution, not the ballot box. Thank heaven for that, because try to imagine the state of journalism if the inverse were true.

This is the most secretive administration in history. They have classified more documents than any before it. They are even re-classifying tens of thousands of documents that have been available for years. They go around the traditional oversight provided by the courts and congress. Even congressional allies are starting to recoil. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence committee, sent a letter to the White House complaining about not having been informed of programs that the law requires be disclosed to the committee.

A free press is expected to be independent and to function with a healthy dose of skepticism. If the press cannot independently analyze government, even with respect to what the government claims should be classified, what good is the press? Should it obediently bow before the government’s royal edicts? Or should it cherish the freedom to think critically and act in accordance with that freedom?