Most everybody is up in arms over the recent revelations about government snooping and the Obama administration's investigation of the media to find the leakers. These investigations, the media reports, "chill" its sources and prevent it from doing its job--keeping the public informed. Well, if you'll bear with me for a moment, I have some questions about this whole ball of wax.
First, do you agree that the government should be keep some things a secret? The details about President Obama's travel plans when he visits the South, perhaps? The specific commands and codes that can launch missiles tipped with nuclear bombs? The ways a terrorist would most effectively spread a biological agent such as Ebola? Let's call these "the x secrets" and it is only they that I am about to explore.
The editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times say that, when a leaker brings them a secret, it is up to them to decide whether or not it should be published. In the words of the Times' Bill Keller, "...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. We make our best judgment." Leonard Downie Jr. writes that as executive editor of the Washington Post, it was his job to weigh "how to publish significant stories about national security without causing unnecessary harm." He decides what is the harm level. The Post's David Ignatius admits, "We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm. The problem is that we aren't fully qualified to make those judgments."
Are you okay with these editors making the final decision about whether or not they will publish the x secrets? And if you assume that they will act responsibly by not publishing these secrets, how about the other media? The Drudge Report? Mother Jones? The National Inquirer? Any bloggers who happens to get their hands on an x secret? If you say, well some of these editors do trouble me, should we then license editors and journalists who are deemed responsible enough to assume the ultimate authority over which secrets are to be published? Who would decide who gets these licenses? And what we do with those who are not licensed and publish secrets anyhow?
Third, the media keeps telling us that the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers than all the other administration combined. This fact certainly seems significant. But what you say when you find out that the actual number is-- seven? That there were hundreds of leaks? That very few leakers were ever convicted or punished? Are you going to sleep better tonight?
Finally, as to the chilling effect, I am sure there are, indeed, at least some officials in some offices who are now a bit more reluctant to leak secrets than before the recent investigations. However, given that the front pages are full of more leaks (with many coming from locations other than the transit area of the Moscow airport), where is the evidence that the public's right to know has been recently restricted relative to what it was before?
If we are going to have a reasoned discussion on these important matters, somebody has to raise these questions that have been all but drowned out by the media chorus that makes it sound as if we just lost the freedom of the press.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of The Limits of Privacy.