David Westin: Leaks Help Protect National Security

There are very few examples of the press putting the country in harm's way, and many more where the country would have been better served if journalists had gotten more of the story

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U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder arrives for a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2013.

We’ve all been told that “loose lips sink ships,” so it’s no surprise that those in government (Democrat or Republican) react so strongly when they learn from their morning paper or cable TV news channel that their colleagues have been sharing secrets with the media. The Constitution tells us we should care about freedom of the press, but surely not at the cost of keeping us safe.

That’s why people always talk about the tradeoff between a free press, on the one hand, and national security interests, on the other. Most recently, this is the way that Attorney General Holder put it when he met with some press representatives about the trouble he’s gotten into over investigating them. What he was seeking was that proverbial “balance between protecting national security and honoring the role of a largely unfettered media in a democracy.”

(MOREDOJ’s Dragnet on Leakers: The Apathy is Troubling, Even Among Journalists)

But national security and a free press aren’t always on opposite sides of the equation. In fact, it’s striking how few specific examples there are of press reports damaging national security.  Sure, there’s the infamous incident of a Chicago newspaper publishing movements of troop ships during the war – but that was World War II (and it turned out that the Japanese weren’t reading Chicago papers at the time).

In the 1970s, our government told us (and the courts) that our national security was at stake when the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, started publishing the secret Pentagon Papers. The Supreme Court disagreed, and today it would be hard to argue that publication hurt our war efforts.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to find instances where our free press did damage national security over the years is that the press has been pretty responsible in curtailing its reporting when the government claims publication could do real harm.  At ABC News after the 9/11 attacks, we took pains to seek government views before we published stories that could implicate national security. Sometimes we went ahead with our reports; sometimes we modified them; sometimes we held them for a time.

Journalists are citizens too, and they understand that reporting on sensitive national security information requires discretion even if they sometimes come out in a different place. The press also knows that public opinion would turn on it very quickly if there were instances where reckless reporting caused real peril.

There may not be many good examples of the press endangering national security, but there are some well-known times when our national security might have been better served if there had been more leaks and the press had reported more of the story.  The most famous, of course, is the New York Times reporting on the Bay of Pigs invasion before it happened.  There are various accounts of this, but David Halberstam’s version has the White House intervening to tone down the story and President Kennedy calling the Times later after the debacle to say he wished they’d resisted the pressure. Maybe the public reaction would have saved him from the whole fiasco.

More recently, we have the case of the WMD that weren’t in Iraq. This was one time when almost all of us in the press let the American people down by accepting the conventional wisdom we were hearing from inside the U.S. government (as well as from other intelligence agencies around the world).  It was our fault for not pressing harder, but there’s little doubt that if there had been more leaks of the confidential assessments – including the dissents – the story of the Iraq War might have come out differently.

Everyone seems to have gotten the message now that we have to rethink the lines when it comes to the government going after the press to curtail leaks. Even more important than where the lines are drawn may be who draws them.  It’s understandable that government officials give primacy to its ability to keep things secret, but we need the news organizations at least to be able to make their case to a neutral judge who can consider national security (as well as constitutional values) in a broader context.

(MORE: Watch: Attorney General Eric Holder Under Fire)

The constitutional values embodied in the First Amendment warrant the reexamination undertaken by Attorney General Holder and the Congress.  But in doing this reexamination, we need to make sure we keep in mind that, in the long run, we may be safer as a nation if the public knows a bit more about what its government is doing.  That’s why we have a free press – not for its own sake – but for the sake of the public. The First Amendment isn’t at odds with national security. It’s one of the surest ways of protecting it.