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The Conversation We Should Be Having About Secrets

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I want to see the editor of a major U.S. newspaper who is covering and uncovering classified government antiterrorism programs write a piece under the headline: "When and why I will reveal secrets." For I have not yet seen a satisfactory answer to that obvious and essential question in any of the many letters and editorials those editors have been writing lately. If journalism is about upholding standards, then let's know what those standards are.

And doing this will set (or finally shift) the agenda of the conversation that is now being run by those attacking these editors. Greg Sargent said in Eat the Press that instead of defending their specific decisions in the Swift banking story, Bill Keller of the New York Times and Dean Baquet of the Los Angeles Times have instead been defending against and giving attention to "wildly irrational" and "profoundly demented" charges up to and including treason. That is why I think it is important to set the context of the discussion in terms of journalistic principles and of an informed -- and secure -- society. So start here:

I will reveal a secret government program when I can show that it violates the law or abuses the power given under that law. I will reveal such a program when I can demonstrate that it is dangerously ineffective or incompetent in its design or execution. And I will not reveal such secrets unless I can show a compelling need to know and newsworthiness, and unless I can show that doing so will not put innocent lives and welfare at risk. If revealing secrets puts the nation, its agents, or soldiers at risk, I will not reveal them.

But this is not what we're hearing in the discussion over the Swift banking story. Instead, in this weekend's joint oped from Keller and Baquet, we see a continuation of the theme of Keller's last latter, which doesn't so much say why they revealed the secrets but instead argues why their critics are wrong to complain.

They say that it is right and necessary for the press to report on what government is doing -- and, of course, I agree -- but they do not address the limits of that, other than to say that they know their own limits and that they have not revealed other secrets in the past. So shouldn't we know those limits as well? For if we don't, then aren't we merely trading blind faith in politicians, properly balanced by the press, with blind faith in editors, balanced by nothing more than government attacks -- and now, perhaps, bloggers?

In his last letter, Keller tried to argue that it was not the job of The Times to judge the programs' legality or effectiveness. Yet -- I asked before -- isn't the decision about whether to violate the government secrets and reveal the workings of the program based on that very sort of judgment? Otherwise, why was the secret revealed? What made it necessary and newsworthy? Was it because the program was illegal or abusive or incompetent or dangerous? Where is the standard?

The Times editorial this week (not from Keller, of course), continued the specious argument made by Keller and then by Times op-ed writers Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey that the terrorists -- and, one assumes, a clueful public -- already knew that the government was tracing financial transactions -- wisely -- to both find terrorists and cut them off from their resources. So if everyone already knew it, they argue, then what's the harm of the disclosure? But then, if everybody already knew it, then where's the news value? If we all knew that the government was tracking transactions -- and that it was legal and effective -- then what is the point in revealing the specifics of the program? And what is the risk? Once again: What made this necessary and newsworthy? Where is the standard?

In their joint piece, Keller and Baquet begin by arguing that they and their staffs are "not neutral in the struggle against terrorism." Well, I would hope that needn't be said. But perhaps it should be. Stipulated.

Then they talk about the special role of the press:

We apply the principles of journalism individually as editors of independent newspapers. We agree, however, on some basics about the immense responsibility the press has been given by the inventors of the country. . . .

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, in the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people."

But as they themselves make clear, it is not the press' role to reveal everything it knows. There are limits. There are lines. But only they know where those lines are.

And let's be clear that the freedom and responsibility supposedly given to the press was truly given to the people. The press itself has no special franchise on that freedom. Indeed, if the press is a check on government, then the people -- not the government -- is the rightful check on the press. So the people deserve to know not only how government operates in our name but how the press operates in our name.

Keller and Baquet continue:

Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price.

In recent years our papers have brought you a great deal of information the White House never intended for you to know -- classified secrets about the questionable intelligence that led the country to war in Iraq, about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the transfer of suspects to countries that are not squeamish about using torture, about eavesdropping without warrants.

They give us that list without a hint of irony. Yes, indeed, questionable intelligence led the country to war in Iraq and much of that came via The New York Times. I have also argued that the "eavesdropping" case isn't as simple as it seems; it's more about analyzing a large body of normal data to find the outliers who may be worth investigating and aggregated data about our actions is not necessarily a violation of our personal privacy. But that's a discussion for another day.

Keller and Baquet continue:

As Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, asked recently in the pages of that newspaper: "You may have been shocked by these revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America's name, shouldn't Americans understand how it is being waged?"

Well, I'd also rather that my enemies not know how that war is being waged.

Next, Keller and Baquet ask: "How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?" Good question. But they answer it not with principles and standards, but instead with process described generically, journalism 102: how tips come in, how reporters report, how conversations occur with government officials in charge of these programs. But we still are not told why this secret is a story and that one is not. They do not reveal their judgment. They say:

Finally, we weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public's interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information.

I'm not asking for a magic formula. I am asking for principles. Here's their kicker:

We make our best judgment.

In short: Trust us.

When we come down in favor of publishing, of course, everyone hears about it. Few people are aware when we decide to hold an article. But each of us, in the past few years, has had the experience of withholding or delaying articles when the administration convinced us that the risk of publication outweighed the benefits. Probably the most discussed instance was The New York Times's decision to hold its article on telephone eavesdropping for more than a year, until editors felt that further reporting had whittled away the administration's case for secrecy.

And the public -- checking the press -- has asked again and again why that story was too dangerous to reveal for a year and then suddenly OK to reveal. The only answer so far: Trust us.

They then list other stories they have not revealed -- not explaining why -- and conclude:

We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices -- to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.

Nor, gentlemen, is it one that we the people wholly surrender to you, the press.

That is why we deserve to know more about your standards and your process. That is not only because we have a right to know what you do in nomen publicus [please do correct my automated Latin] but also because we, too, have a voice that matters. Many people questioned Judith Miller's WMD reporting and think how much better it would have been if those questions had been heard and answered.

That is the sort of substantive discussion we should be having. Instead, we are stuck in a simplistic did-not/did-too shouting match in which the papers reveal what they choose to reveal, and then the politicians call names, and then the papers respond to those names -- instead of discussing the real questions and issues. It is up to the editors, I think, to set that tone.