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Reporting Sensitive Information

December 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: When is it legitimate to publish sensitive intelligence information? Two recent news stories have re-raised this long-standing question, and offered a window into behind-the-scenes interaction between the media and government officials.

Ten days ago, the New York Times reported the National Security Agency has been conducting eavesdropping in the United States without court orders. In early November, the Washington Post published a story about the CIA’s use of secret prisons overseas to hold suspected terrorists.

According to accounts in Newsweek and today’s Washington Post, the president himself lobbied editors at both papers to withhold publication of the stories on national security grounds.

To look at the issues raised, we’re joined now by Scott Armstrong, an investigative journalist and executive director of Information Trust, a nonprofit group that works toward opening access to government information. He is an author and former reporter for the Washington Post. And by James Woolsey, who served as director of Central intelligence during the Clinton administration. He is now a vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. Armstrong, starting with you, from the perspective of a media organization, what determines whether a story that contains sensitive intelligence information should be published?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: What determines it is the value to the public. What the news value is, is what the public needs to be informed about. It’s weighed against questions that might damage the national security, and there is careful deliberation given.

But it is basically the fact that the public needs to understand what is done in its name, in secret, as well as what is done in the public.

JEFFREY BROWN: So from what you now know about these two recent stories in the Times and the Post, should they have been published?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Oh, absolutely, yes. There is a great deal more to come, I think, in both respects. And some of that may come out over a longer period of time. Some of it may be withheld for a while because it could be damaging to the national security.

But from what we can see so far, there don’t appear to be indications that this was so sensitive that it couldn’t be published.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Woolsey, do you see some damage done by publishing these stories?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Yes, I do, particularly the one about the surveillance, the electronic surveillance. I think the Post showed some caution and some judgment in its story about the overseas facilities that the CIA allegedly was using.

They, apparently, at the government’s request did not publish the names of the countries involved. And that’s somewhat like something that I was involved with when I was director of Central Intelligence going to a major media outlet and asking them to withhold some facts from a story. But not objecting, essentially, to the story as a whole.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not an entire story but some details that you thought were important.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Right. I think that the electronic surveillance story, though, illustrates something that’s very new in the U.S., which is that since 9/11, we now have conflicts between important security issues and important issues of civil liberties and publishing that we didn’t really face in many ways during the Cold War. In the last 30 years or so of the Cold War we got used to having security dealt with abroad and liberties, pretty much all that any modern society could have, we have here at home.

9/11 changed that. We now have things that conflict between liberty and security that we wish didn’t. And these are hard calls. I think these — both these cases you mentioned are tough calls.

I come out in the Post’s favor on one and against the Times on the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it is possible, starting with you, Mr. Woolsey, to draw the line? Where would you draw the line between what should be published and what should be held on security?

JAMES WOOLSEY: Not a single line but there’s some guidelines. For example, back in ’98, the Post published that we were listening in on bin Laden’s satellite telephone; I think that was an idiotic thing to do. There was no public purpose served by that except it alerted bin Laden and then he stopped talking on that satellite telephone.

These two recent cases are much closer calls. I think have you have to balance the interest of public discussion on importance issues, as Scott said, together with a consideration of how this may damage us in the war on terror.

And I think the electronic surveillance issue story in the Times has given terrorists and those who work with them a lot of information that I wish they didn’t have.

JEFFREY BROWN: How would you draw the line here?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: I think the line is draw in a manner that it’s also secret. Most of what the New York Times learned they still haven’t disclosed.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean in this particular case.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: In this particular case. And I think that’s true in many instances but you have to understand that the story starts with some people that have a very detailed knowledge that are themselves concerned perhaps about the propriety about what is being done, but they’re also concerned about the national security.

It builds through discussions with other more senior officials. There is contact with official contact points, spokespeople for the administration and then in the rare instances, sometimes the administration comes back and says please don’t publish this.

But that’s a discussion that usually includes five, ten, one hundred different items, many of which are held back for the time being. But when you go forward, I mean the bin Laden story about him using his cell phone I think is a — it’s not totally a myth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which the president of course has cited several times.

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: But it’s not that bin Laden was using his cell phone. He knew that cell phones were monitored. He knew the type of cell phone he was using were monitored.

What it is, he took other precautions and some of the precautions that he takes are precautions that means he think he’s secure. We finally figure out a way – it takes a lot of effort — and we find out what he is saying. That’s very valuable to the United States Government.

And I don’t think reporters rush in or say something indiscreet in that regard. It’s when you publish a time date between this point and that point, the specifics of what was said, that’s when they begin to realize whoa, what I thought was secure is no longer secure and they change their methods. I don’t think it was the Post story; I don’t think it was the other stories cited in the Washington Times but something else that made him change his behavior.

JEFFREY BROWN: How unusual is it to have the president step in, in a case like this and ask that a story not be published, Mr. Armstrong?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: I think it is highly unusual. And I remember instances, I remember Jimmy Carter asking the Post not to publish things. I remember during the Reagan administration it went up to the presidential level.

And we have a couple instances in this administration. It’s not that uncommon though for the heads of agencies or for the director of Central Intelligence, I don’t mean to say that it is a weekly event, but I think it happens, you know, a dozen times a year where a head of an agency will contact the organization and say here’s some reasons why we would like to see you not publish it. And that discussion then becomes very elaborate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said this happened to you.

JAMES WOOLSEY: This happened a couple of times to me during the two years I was director of Central Intelligence. I never had to go to the president on it. I went to the media in each case — explained one-on-one.

In one case actually I took along with me a CIA case officer who knew the facts on the matter very thoroughly. We explained to the head of the media institution involved what was involved and why this particular two or three facts would have helped substantially in burning or destroying a source or method.

And in each case, the media went ahead with the story as a whole but excluded the facts that I had brought up. My experience with the media on this sort of matter was really quite positive during my two years as CIA director.

JEFFREY BROWN: If the president or a top official asks for changes or that a story be held, what kind of difference should the journalist give?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, the fact that it’s going to the president or it’s gone to someone as senior as Director Woolsey was, I think gives everyone pause. And you begin to ask questions of yourself, you begin to try and clarify it at that point. But you go back to your sources.

But it’s the sources along the way, and I’m not just saying the original sources; I’m saying very senior officials.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean as the story is being built. Is that your experience too, that as a story is being built of this nature, there is constant interaction, a lot of interaction between the journalist and officials?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG: And you go back and you test and you say: Is this really that sensitive? What is sensitive about it? Is it the who? Is it the what, is it the when? Is it the how?

And you will get answers begrudgingly, sometimes. But some people would say, well, there is an impropriety here, there is something that should be published but please leave out this particular type of information. And I think those are generally observed.

I would be interested to know if Director Woolsey, the story that asked to be held, if, in fact, details of it came out later, and were they dangerous later. Sometimes time is a factor.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Some details did but not the ones that we cared about, not the ones that would have burned the source.

This is something that, I mean, look, the CIA and American intelligence as a whole is not popular with the press because it’s a constant struggle between openness and lack of openness. Intelligence requires security and secrecy, and so there’s a constant jousting going on.

But my experience, as I said, was that the boundaries were reasonably well observed, at least during those two years, calendars ’93 and ’94. And we were able to work with the press reasonably well. But we were not in the middle of a war on terrorism.

Part of the problem here with the electronic surveillance issue is that FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was passed over a quarter of a century ago. And it was passed in a world in which intelligence surveillance meant going in with alligator clips, an FBI agent listening in on somebody’s line — a world of data mining, the Internet, all of this is relatively new and so certainly newer than 78.

So I have some sympathy really for the administration in trying to figure out how to use these tools against terrorists and people who have ties to al-Qaida while still staying within the president’s constitutional authority.

As I said, I think this is a close call. But I think the president has stayed where he — within his authority.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, we will leave it there and watch to see what happens with these stories. James Woolsey, Scott Armstrong, thank you both very much.