The Media, National Security And Leaks
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill aimed to stop unauthorized leaks of classified information. Her legislation, among other things, would restrict the number of intelligence officials authorized to speak to reporters, limit background briefings for reporters and penalize officials who violate anti-leaking rules.
The bill passed the Senate Intelligence Committee 14 to one, and over on the House side, Republican Peter King thinks it's a good idea.
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: The fact is American lives are being put at risk because secrets are being leaked out. We have to clamp down on it, we have to restrict it, we have to stop it. And I think Senator Feinstein's bill, as passed out of the committee, is a perfect bill. Maybe there's some room for improvement. I tell you, as I see it, though, right now, it addresses the issues head on. We cannot allow these type of leaks.
GJELTEN: Peter King is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He spoke this week on Fox. But civil libertarians, journalists and even some national security officials say this anti-leak bill goes too far. And the controversy doesn't end there. Mitt Romney and other Republicans have accused the Obama administration of leaking secrets to gain political advantage. That charge brought this retort yesterday from President Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan.
JOHN BRENNAN: It's easy to get up in front of a TV camera, quite frankly, and point fingers at the White House and say they're doing it for this or that. You know, and frankly, I think a lot of those allegations are highly irresponsible.
GJELTEN: We're going to begin this discussion now with Scott Shane from the New York Times. Scott reports on national security issues. In an article last week, Scott wrote that the FBI investigation into recent leaks has cast, quote, a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings.
Scott Shane joins us now in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program, Scott.
SCOTT SHANE: Thanks for having me, Tom.
GJELTEN: Has that been your experience, Scott? Have you found it, in the last few weeks, as a result of this controversy, harder to get through to intelligence officials?
SHANE: Yes, I would say I have, and some of my colleagues have. There's a broader phenomenon, as you know, in the Obama administration there have been six prosecutions, criminal prosecutions, of government employees for leaking to the media, and that had already sort of charged this relationship - complicated relationship - between people in the security agencies and reporters.
And then this current set of investigations with FBI agents going into a bunch of agencies and talking to junior and senior officials, warning them to preserve any records that they might have of contacts with the press, that kind of thing, definitely, you know, got people's attention and made them wary of talking about things they might ordinarily be quite willing to talk about.
GJELTEN: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times. I want to bring our listeners into this conversation. Is there a report you read or a story you heard that you think revealed too much? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
By the way, later in the program, NPR's Chris Joyce joins us to talk about a new human species, but in this hour we're talking about leaks. We're trying to find or talk about finding the right balance between government openness and government security. Our guests are Scott Shane from the New York Times. Also Peter Brookes joins us. He's a nation - he's a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation, and he joins us from his office there. Peter Brookes, welcome to the program.
PETER BROOKES: Thank you for having me, Tom.
GJELTEN: Well, as you just heard briefly from Scott Shane, saying that already it's getting harder to find - to get intelligence officials to provide even sort of basic background briefings and information to reporters who really need that information. That's one of the downsides of this move. Tell us why, in your judgment, you know, being more vigilant about Sikhs - about leaks and classified information might actually be important, a good idea.
BROOKES: It is very important, especially from a national security standpoint, and obviously because of ongoing investigations, people are probably very close-mouthed about things. But, I mean, going back even to the Osama bin Laden raid, you know, that we had that come out it'll be a year or so ago in May; the Stuxnet, the cybervirus against the Iranians; talk about the kill list; the Pakistani doctor; the underwear bomber; even, most recently, the presidential - the supposed presidential finding on Syria.
I mean, these can be very injurious to our national security, and that's why they're classified. I mean, the whole idea of classification is to protect American secrets and protect America's reputation in the world.
I mean, Tom, my view is that, as I've said publicly many times, you know, this can hurt future military operations or intelligence operations because, you know, it's not only Americans that are reading these reports in our newspapers and our media, it's others.
I mean, I think it also puts American troops in harm's way, as well. There's also opportunities for retribution. I mean, you know, the fact that the Iranians know that we were trying to take down their, you know, nuclear program, and I'm all for that, I have no problem with that at all, is that they would, you know, perhaps target our infrastructure here in the United States.
And I'm also worried about our relationship with our allies, who we share intelligence with, and even assets who might work on our behalf, whether they'd be willing to work with us, or they're afraid it's going to end up on the front page of a newspaper, which in some places could, you know, lead them to a quick swing, you know, in the galleys - in the gallows, I'm sorry.
So I mean, this is something that's very important, and there's a reason this stuff is classified.
GJELTEN: All those arguments make a lot of sense, Peter, but you're here in Washington, I'm here in Washington, Scott Shane is here in Washington. We know a lot about the national security issues that our country is dealing with. Isn't it important also for the American people to have a sophisticated and informed understanding of the threats facing the United States, the adversaries and the ways that our government is responding to those threats and dealing with them and facing them?
You know, there is debates around these issues, and isn't it important for the American people to be informed about all these issues?
BROOKES: Yeah, Tom, I'm not a person who's an expert on freedom of the press, mine is national security. So you can understand that I lean in that direction, and I express those concerns. I think you probably have other guests that are better at that. And of course you have to walk a fine line, but some of this stuff is very, very sensitive.
I mean, this information about Stuxnet that went after the Iranian nuclear program, and Flame, this other thing, I my cyberoperations, say, especially offensive operations, are the most sensitive secrets within the government today, very sensitive stuff. And I think it has to be protected.
And of course I understand - I mean look, I'm a retired intelligence - you know, I had a long career in the intelligence business in the Navy and with others, very interested in these details, and I understand how interesting they are and how much people want to know about them. I understand that thirst for this information, it's fascinating.
But I'm also worried about the fact that we are at war, and we have serious national security matters we're trying to deal with, such as Iran's nuclear problem. We still have, you know, tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. I mean, I want to make sure that nothing we say publicly would be injurious to our national security, and some of this stuff, and I don't think I'm alone here, I think could be...
I mean, and we've heard reports, and I can't give you a name, but I'm sure folks can find it. There have been people who do - are inside the government, such as on Capitol Hill, have said that there are problems with getting cooperation with, you know, allies and others who share intelligence with us because they're concerned that it's going to be leaked into the open media, and people will find out about it.
GJELTEN: Well, Peter, hang on the line if you can for a few minutes because this is a really important discussion. I want to bring listeners Eugene(ph) in now from Columbus, Ohio. Eugene, you're on TALK OF THE NATION, thanks for the call.
EUGENE: Yeah, thank you also for taking my call. So on the subject of Iran, frankly when I read the story, the first question I asked myself is: Why is this even made public? Because, you know, to the point of your - the gentleman who just spoke, some things are very, very sensitive. And it's an ongoing war.
And, you know, if I'm going to be the ally, I certainly wouldn't want to cooperate going forward because I'm thinking, well, how long is it going to take for this information to be in the public, and, you know, is that going to harm other relationships I have.
You know, we made a lot of noise about the leaks, the WikiLeaks and things like - that type of information, you know, it's not meant to be for general consumption. And so when it ends up in the mainstream, and it's all over the place, the question I ask myself is why. Why is this necessary for all this information to be out there? So that is my comment. Thank you so much.
GJELTEN: Thank you very much, Eugene. Scott Shane from the New York Times, it was your newspaper that did that story on Stuxnet and Iran, your colleague David Sanger. What's your thought about this issue of whether stories like this, you know, harm the national security interest or are important to be told, need to be told?
SHANE: Well, as David Sanger himself, my colleague, has explained, that story about the cyber attacks apparently by the U.S. and Israel working together against the Iranian nuclear program, was not just a sort of leak or handout from a government official to the New York Times.
The story actually surfaced, first among private security firms because this worm, this computer worm, had gotten out and was infecting computers around the world, and they began studying it and coming up with the notion that it was apparently targeted to a particular kind of computer controller for machines.
And then the press began to get engaged, and it, kind of, gradually came out in, you know, abroad and at home over a number of years. David Sanger's recent story and recent book added some detail, color, a context to this story, but it's - you know, it's an example of how things get out in ways other than American officials telling reporters.
GJELTEN: That's an important point, isn't it, Peter Brookes, because, you know, one of the allegations has been that this is actually very deliberate, and it's meant for political purposes. But sometimes, you know, it only reflects the hard work of reporters that keep digging and digging and digging.
BROOKES: No, I understand that, but in my - in some of these cases, I mean, it's not - what it takes is it takes issues from allegations to confirmation, and that's a big difference. When somebody alleges something or thinks something or opines about something, including computer specialists that deal in cyber issues, that's one thing. But it's another thing when it comes out of the government, where you believe that it's true, and it confirms it.
I mean, for instance, another thing, the Pakistani doctor, he was arrested shortly there - my understanding, Tom, is that...
GJELTEN: This is the Pakistani doctor who...
BROOKES: Involved in the Osama bin Laden raid, I'm sorry. He was arrested shortly after the raid, actually, but the problem was, my concern was that we confirmed that he had been working for us later on, which made the case against him even more difficult or even more - depending on which side you're on, but for the Pakistanis, it, you know, told them that this person was working with us. And I don't think we should have done that.
So there's a lot of ways that this - the information gets out. When it comes out of the government, it tends to confirm it, and I'm very - obviously, I didn't even speak about this, but I'm very concerned about the political element, which you just mentioned.
GJELTEN: Yeah, well, that's something that we'll need to discuss after the break. Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation. We are talking about leaks, when they work, when they don't, why they happen. If you've ever read a story you think should not have been leaked, give us a call and tell us about it, 800-989-8255. Send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll have more in a minute. I'm Tom Gjelten, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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GJELTEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten. Leaks are a fact of life in Washington, and while administrations routinely decry them, they also routinely make use of them discreetly and strategically. Loose lips may sink ships, but loose lips may also promote an agenda on the sly. The debate over their use has come up throughout American history, most famously the granddaddy of all leaks, Daniel Ellsberg's copying and distribution of top secret Pentagon Papers, exposing lies the U.S. government used to build the case for war in Vietnam.
More recently, we had the Valerie Plame affair and, of course, WikiLeaks. So tell us: Is there a story you read where you thought the leaker crossed a line? Call us at 800-989-8255. Send us an email, email@example.com. You can also ask us via Twitter, @totn.
My guests are Scott Shane from the New York Times and Peter Brookes from The Heritage Foundation. Before I let you go, Peter, there is something that, in the national security world we talk about called strategic communications or building influence. Sometimes you want to sort of plant ideas out there, shape perceptions precisely for national security purposes. Is that not correct?
BROOKES: Yeah, there's all sorts of ways you can define that, Tom. You know, there's called public diplomacy, I mean, it's called public declaratory policy. There's all sorts of things out there. For instance, you know, on the Iranian nuclear file, you know, folks might say we're going to use diplomacy, we're going to use sanctions, and we're keeping the military option on the table.
So there's all sorts of ways of communicating, and countries signal one to the other on very important issues. So that should be public knowledge.
GJELTEN: That's a good example. Peter, that's a good example, I mean, because if you want to signal that the military option is on the table, you know, maybe a well-timed leak about a particular carrier movement or something like that would serve that purpose.
BROOKES: Well, yeah, and you also have to be careful about how you define leak. An authorized disclosure is not a leak. A leak is an unauthorized disclosure where somebody should not have leaked it. And of course, you know, as people look at it, it's kind of a Rorschach ink test, isn't it? You know, some people say yeah, I think that should have been put in the public eye, and others say no it should not have been.
GJELTEN: All right, Peter Brookes, senior fellow at the national - at The Heritage Foundation. Thanks so much for calling us, Peter. I'm going to let you go and get back to work now.
BROOKES: Thanks, Tom.
GJELTEN: Bye. I want to go back to Scott Shane, you heard the argument here, Scott. What - from our point of view in the media and from those who believe in freedom of the press, what could be the effect of legislation that would penalize leaking or, you know, executive orders that might have the same effect?
What is your concern? What is the media's concern about what effect this would have on reporting?
SHANE: Well, I think all of us, of course we're reporters, our job is to report. And in a national security realm, so much information is classified, so much is treated as secret by the government. By consensus among nearly everybody who's ever worked in the intelligence agencies and in the White House, far too much information is classified.
So it's hard to, sort of, say, well, I'm going to write about national security but never venture into the classified realm. If you go back to the last presidency, to the presidency of George W. Bush, there were obviously huge public debates, ultimately legislation, on the warrant less wiretapping by the National Security Agency and on the harsh interrogation methods that the CIA used on prisoners.
Both those were top secret programs that only came to public light, public discussion and ultimately congressional debate because of leaks. So, you know, if you're going to have the American people in a democracy bringing their opinions to bear on some of these issues, they can't remain entirely in the dark.
And, you know, the tradition in this country is for people to have a kind of healthy skepticism about what their government is up to, be a little wary of government power and government secrecy. And, you know, in the press I guess we generally feel that's not a bad thing.
GJELTEN: I want to hear from some of our listeners who undoubtedly have thoughts about this, as well. Right now, Tim is on the phone from Indiana. Good afternoon, Tim.
TIM: Good afternoon.
GJELTEN: And your thoughts on this issue?
TIM: Yeah, I happen to agree with what the press, the guy who said I'm a retired intelligence officer. But I think that there is - you know, I had a lot of disagreement with WikiLeaks, but I don't really object to what he did. I do think he went a little bit too far, but I do think that a lot of times we tend to classify information often for political reasons more than military secret reasons.
And it's a hard line. I mean, it really is a tough thing, but I think the American people have a certain amount of information that they need to know about and they need to make decisions about. I mean, the gentleman just talked about the water boarding issues. You know, I mean, waterboarding was illegal and made illegal by the U.S. Army in 1902 during the Philippine Insurrection for a very good reason.
Yet now in the 2000s, we're going back to using that methodology that for 100 years we've known is not only ineffective, but wrong. I mean, so I think, you know, it's a challenge. You know, leaks - Peter Brookes said leaks are unauthorized, and I don't always agree with that. I think leaks can be authorized, but you want some plausible deniability about it.
But at same token, you know, you do have to safeguard secrets. So it's a challenge, but it's something that we have to be able to wade our way through.
GJELTEN: Interesting perspective from a former intelligence official. Thank you very much for the call, Tim. Chrissie(ph) with a different perspective writes us from Houston, Texas. She says: As a former DOD counterterrorism analyst and a journalism major, the media poses a serious threat to our national security.
As your guests have stated, the information being reported is classified, it's classified for a reason. I have no idea why any responsible journalist would feel that sensitive intelligence information has to be reported.
It's a difficult issue, and, you know, it goes to the heart of the relationship between a reporter and an administration, a reporter and his or her sources. Scott Shane from the New York Times just mentioned the George W. Bush administration, and we now have on the line Ari Fleischer, he was the White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003.
And Ari, thanks for joining TALK OF THE NATION today.
ARI FLEISCHER: Good afternoon.
GJELTEN: Yeah, so Ari, I understand that you - I mean, you've dealt with reporters. You dealt with reporters a lot. You dealt with reporters clamoring more information. You had to decide what to kind of dish out to them, and I'm sure you made that decision very carefully.
You recently wrote a column saying that you'd read a New York Times article about reporters getting their quotes approved from their sources before publishing them, and you said your jaw dropped when you read that article. Tell us what you meant by that.
FLEISCHER: Well, the article talked about how in the campaigns today and in Washington, D.C., it's become a common culture not only for senior aides but even mid-level aides to do an interview with a reporter that is on background, meaning you can say a senior administration official or a campaign aide, but you can't quote them by name.
And then reporters, after the conversation's over, send an email to that source and say hey, do you mind if we put this one on record? And then according to that New York Times story, the source will look at the quote, edit the quote, change the quote or say no to using the quote.
GJELTEN: Did none of that happen...?
FLEISCHER: I never could have been allowed to do that when I was press secretary. The rules were so different 10 years ago. And it just shocked me that such a thing as quote approval even exists, and my point in my op-ed was if this is the case, government sources are winning the tug-of-war that's been in place since our republic began with the free press.
And even though I'm a press secretary, and part of my job is to control the press, so to speak, quote approval goes too far. It really ought to be stop.
GJELTEN: Wow, that's interesting. So which side are you on in this debate, Ari? Are you in favor of openness and, you know, freedom of press? Are you in favor of, you know, government sort of controlling the information that reporters have?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think you can't be a press secretary and not see both sides of it, and that still is where I am. And I think every instance dictates what the right answer is. You know, for example let's say the United States today is doing things to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, which we should be doing.
And let's say many of those things are clandestine and covert, and we're working with other nations to get that done. I want to keep that secret because the greater good is to stop Iran. And if leaking that information meant that a nation that we're working with would get compromised or embarrassed or would no longer want to help us, or we're sending a signal to a European nation, don't get involved with America because America can't keep its secret, we're harming our ability to keep the peace.
I also agree with the case that sometimes there are too many things that are classified for political reasons, as opposed to military reasons, and that's where there's this balance in the middle. So it really does come down, case by case.
GJELTEN: It comes down case by case. That balance is sometimes, that line is sometimes hard to draw. But are you saying when you were in government, when you were press secretary under George W. Bush it was easier to draw that line, you really didn't have these situations where, you know, an administration official would be of two minds about whether to be quoted on the record or whether to be quoted on background and maybe sort of like discussed it with a reporter?
FLEISCHER: Yeah, a great question, and this is where quote approval evolved, from something that started out as probably a pretty wise practice, to try to get something on background and put it on the record. You're talking to an official at the National Security Council, for example, and they're trying to shed light on a very complicated policy matter.
And so they talk on background because their job's not to be quoted, what happens to you as a practical matter, is all of a sudden 20 other reporters call you, and you don't have time to do your day job because you're dealing with all these reporters now.
So a lot of aides don't want to be quoted by name, but they want to make sure a nuance is reflected accurately. So they help a reporter out on occasion. That's where background conversations can indeed be good ones and helpful ones.
Where the process has gone off the tracks today is that political aides, mid-level aides who are not dealing with complicated policy stories or not dealing with nuances, are all trying to get control over the media by getting control over what's quoted and approving or disapproving the quote. That's where reporters, in my book, should just put their foot down and say, we don't operate that way. You either need to talk to us on the record or not talk to us at all. We'll figure this out some other way.
That's where the political game has gone too far, when the story is just about politics: who's up, who's down in the course of a race, why are you running this tactic or that tactic. Those are not state secrets.
GJELTEN: Yeah. Stay on the line if you would, Ari, because you're making some really interesting points. But I want to bring Mark into the conversation now from Oklahoma City. Mark, you're on the phone with TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks for the call.
MARK: Can you hear me?
GJELTEN: I sure can. I can hear you loud and clear.
MARK: OK. I'm not sure that the previous guest's statement that there's no such thing as an authorized leak is entirely accurate. But assuming that it is, under Senator Feinstein's bill, who decides what is an unauthorized leak?
GJELTEN: Scott, you've been - Scott Shane of The New York Times, you've been following the debate over this legislation. Are you sort of up to speed on the provisions in the legislation? I understand it is evolving, isn't it?
SHANE: Yes. In fact, Senator Feinstein has said that it's a work in progress, and there are some indications it might change. But it would restrict - I think that there is some confusion about authorized and unauthorized leaks. In other words, leak sometimes isn't that helpful because it's a grab bag that doesn't necessarily make distinctions.
There are frequently statements made by government officials with the full knowledge and approval of their bosses, but speaking on background, as we say. In other words, they'll be quoted not by name, but by their title or by a kind of categorical description like senior administration official...
MARK: Do you consider it as a leak?
SHANE: That is not - I would not consider that to be a leak. It's essentially an authorized disclosure by a government official who's speaking on background. That's very different from an official who speaks to a reporter privately, he hopes, you know, secretly and conveys information that his bosses would not want him to convey. That's what I think most people, you know, would consider to be a leak, an unauthorized disclosure of information.
GJELTEN: Thanks for the call, Mark. Ari Fleischer, you know, it's interesting that we're having - spending as much time as we are in definitions here, distinguishing between a leak and an authorized disclosure, an unauthorized disclosure. You must have dealt with these issues as press secretary. And what could - what - can you tell us a little bit about the decision-making process in deciding which disclosures to authorize and which ones not to?
FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the interesting thing about that is when you're the press secretary, there's almost no such thing as a background quote because what's on background to somebody else becomes on the record for you because you're the one standing at the podium.
So if there is a story in The New York Times this morning, for example, that quotes a senior administration official who put something out, either authorized or unauthorized, I'm the one standing at the podium with the lights and the cameras on that afternoon, dealing with it.
So most of this does not come out of the office of the press secretary. It will come out of somewhere other than that at the White House - National Security Council, a different aide to the president - and often it comes out of the bureaucracy.
And that's the genesis of these, and sometimes they reflect policy debates where somebody thinks that the White House is going to make a decision that's a bad one. And so they'll put information out to a friendly reporter to try to change the course of that debate so the decision gets made more their way than anybody else's way.
FLEISCHER: That's often what happens in Washington. I view that as a sign of a bad information process. The fact of the matter is if a president runs an inclusive information process where different people from different agencies get to have their say, pros and cons are aired...
FLEISCHER: ...chances are you don't have a lot of leaks because the process worked.
GJELTEN: All right. Ari Fleischer is - was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
But, Ari, before you go, I mean your work was not just standing at the podium. When you had these - when other members of the administration spoke to reporters, you knew that stuff was going on. In fact, you probably sometimes sat in on those conversations, correct?
FLEISCHER: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There might be times where, for example, Condoleezza Rice did a background interview as national security adviser, talking about the situation in Afghanistan or the situation in Iraq. I might either be part of that or I would sit on that or help plan that. There might be other times when somebody says something, and you see it in the paper that day yourself.
Again, so much is case by case, and there are so many different people at the White House and in the agencies who can speak with some authority. The job of the press secretary is to juggle it all.
GJELTEN: Well, thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. Ari Fleischer was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration. He's president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, and he wrote a piece that appeared on cnn.com called "How Washington Officials Bested the Media." He joined us by phone from his office in Bedford, New York.
And by the way, you can get a link - find a link to his piece on quote approval on our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ari, thanks very much for joining us.
FLEISCHER: Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: So, Scott, to what extent is this going forward? We talked at the beginning of the program. We had a quote on that was from 2003. This has been such an old issue. Do you have a sense that this debate over leaks is really different now and is likely to have effects that it did not have in the past?
SHANE: You know, it's even a lot older than 2003. Back in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers case, the famous case in which Daniel Ellsberg handed over thousands, you know, hundreds of pages of secret history of Vietnam to New York Times and The Washington Post, eventually the court ruled that those - that document could be published. Max Frankel, who was then the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, filed an affidavit in that case - we're talking about 1971, a long time ago. And reading it over today, you realize how little has changed. I'll just read you a tiny bit of it.
GJELTEN: Tiny bit.
SHANE: Yeah. Without the use of quote "secrets" unquote, there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington.
So even then, there was this tussle between reporting and what the government wanted to keep secret.
GJELTEN: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times. He joined us in Studio 3A. Scott, thanks very much for joining us.
SHANE: Thanks for having me.
GJELTEN: After a short break, NPR's Christopher Joyce joins us to talk about the discovery of what might be a long-lost branch on humans' family tree. More in just a moment. I'm Tom Gjelten. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.