JIM LEHRER: Ben, what responsibilities do journalist
have to protect national security secrets?
BEN BRADLEE: National security is a really big problem
for journalists, because no journalist worth his salt
wants to endanger the national security, but the law
talks about anyone who endangers the security of the
United States is going to go to jail. So, here you
are, especially in the Pentagon. Some guy tells you
something. He says that's a national security matter.
Well, you're supposed to tremble and get scared and
it never, almost never means the security of the national
More likely to mean the security or the personal
happiness of the guy who is telling you something.
JIM LEHRER: Telling the story?
BEN BRADLEE: Because, you know, if he gets caught,
why, he may not be so secure. He may be out on his
JIM LEHRER: You must have had some tough calls.
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, let me give you an example. The
United States, at one point, developed a fantastic
bell that they lowered to the bottom of the ocean
floor to cover a Soviet cable and it was the cable
through which the Soviet Government was communicating
to its agents all over the world.
And, in fact, they were so sure it was secure that
it wasn't even coded. So, when we lowered this bell--it
was called Ivy Bells. They lowered it down over the
Soviet cable. They put a cartridge of, you know, just
like you do in your tape recorder. Some diver stuck
it in there and recorded and recorded and recorded,
until, you know, they ran out of tape and they sent
another diver down.
The Post heard about this. I never heard of it
and I was stunned. I was interested and I was also
saying there is no damned way we were going to run
this if it was still operating. So, we didn't run
it. Anyway, I didn't get much of a beef out of Woodward.
But a couple of months later, he came in and said,
Ivy Bells is missing. And it turns out that the Soviets
had discovered this bell over their cable and they
said, well, you know, what the hell is this and removed
JIM LEHRER: The Soviets took the bell away?
BEN BRADLEE: The Soviets took the bell away.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, all right.
BEN BRADLEE: And the last time I heard, it was still
on exhibition in Moscow. And so, then I thought that
we were absolutely free to write it. You know, it
wasn't risking any security. We just didn't have it.
The Soviets had obviously taken it. So, they knew
we didn't have it. We weren't telling them anything
they didn't know. And Casey, the head of the CIA,
raised absolute hell about it.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Casey?
BEN BRADLEE: Bill Casey. He came to see me, which
is unheard of that the CIA director comes to see an
JIM LEHRER: What was his argument? What was his point?
BEN BRADLEE: His argument was that, it was a matter
of national security and we don't want to tell people
that we had it or didn't have it and especially that
we had lost it. And I said, well, you know, the Soviets
must obviously know about it.
The White House got involved and called Woodward
and me over. They said, you know, we're going to prosecute
you, Section 18, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And
we had developed that, that kind of rule, that anybody
really threatened you like that, you would give them
24 hours to make their case. You'd withhold the story
for 24 hours and then run it.
So, we waited for 24 hours and then they persuaded
us to wait for another 24 hours. And damned if it
wasn't on NBC News the second night. Now, they didn't
do much with it, because they didn't know as much
as we did. But it was an example of just, you know,
I think an excess of caution on our part, which cost
us the story.
JIM LEHRER: Did you ever run a story that was in
that area and then regretted it afterward; that you
thought that you might have hurt somebody--
BEN BRADLEE: No.
JIM LEHRER: --or hurt some cause or some--
BEN BRADLEE: No. Automatically, if anybody's life
was involved, you never touched it. But they had to
convince you that somebody's life was involved. You
know, just because they said it didn't necessarily
JIM LEHRER: And you're completely at ease with the
journalists making this decision rather than the government?
BEN BRADLEE: No, I'm not completely at ease. I think
you do so at your own risk.
JIM LEHRER: But let me reverse the thing. I mean,
why did the public need to know about this bell?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, they, they--it seems to me that,
there were two things about it that were extremely
interesting. One is that we had that capability. I
mean, that made me feel good. And the second thing,
of course, is that we lost that capability.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
BEN BRADLEE: And it seems to me that the public can
handle that. The public is perfectly grown up. It
risked no one's life. It, it shows that the, the government,
at least, some part of the government at one time
was really intelligently working for our security.
I thought it was, you know, a net plus.
JIM LEHRER: Is it the right instinct for somebody
in journalism that, that when in doubt, publish?
BEN BRADLEE: I think the right instinct is when
you're in doubt, pay attention to it.
JIM LEHRER: Pay attention to the doubt?
The Lack of Public
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah and listen
to it. And I mean, I think maybe people don't know how
many people are involved at a paper in a decision like
that. I mean, you would, we would have seven or eight
people in on that decision and arguing it both sides
for maybe all day and, you know, at that time, years
ago, probably half of them would have been in the military
at one time in their lives. That's something that has
changed. Very few of them are now.
JIM LEHRER: Is that a problem?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I mean, they're missing one of
the life experiences that were vitally important to
this country and to the people in it. I can't believe
that you have to be in the military to be a good journalist.
You have to be, but I think--I'll tell you what I
think is the most important thing about it is the
experience of someone who devoted x amount of years
to service of his country. I think that's very important.
If I could change one rule in America, it would be
that everybody had to do that. I think that would
JIM LEHRER: Mandatory national service of some kind?
BEN BRADLEE: Yes, great for the country and great
for the people.
JIM LEHRER: Ben, what do you think about embedding
reporters with military units, as was done in the
Iraq War originally?
BEN BRADLEE: I think embedding is a mixed blessing.
You're at the mercy of the commanding general, who
decides whether your unit is going to play any role
at all in the story. It would be great to be embedded
with George Patton in World War Two, but what if you
drew some general who was guarding, you know, an arsenal
somewhere. You know, that's a ridiculous example,
but sometimes, there's nothing happening. And if you're
embedded, you can't get the hell out.
JIM LEHRER: What about the idea that we have fewer
and fewer reporters with military experience; that
embedding reporters at least exposes those journalists
who get embedded to what it's like to be in the military,
what it's like to be in a firefight, what it's like
to walk up a hill with a pack on your back, what it's
like to take a destroyer and try to, you know, put
it to port?
BEN BRADLEE: You mean, you're saying it serves an
educative function for the journalist itself.
JIM LEHRER: And out of that comes better journalism
about the military.
BEN BRADLEE: It's a very expensive training program,
but that is a hidden--a not so hidden benefit; sure,
it does. And you see some of these guys now who come
back from Iraq and they have seen lots of battle;
they really have. And yet, you know, they're 12 years
old. They have never--no, they're, you know, whether
they're in their 30s or some of them in their 20s,
JIM LEHRER: A lot of them have come back different
people than when they went over there.
BEN BRADLEE: Yes, they have.
JIM LEHRER: Same experience as a soldier.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, that's a good thing. That's a
terrific thing. I mean, that--if we don't learn by
our experience, we don't learn.