A modest proposal for curbing leaks of intelligence-gathering by the press

As I noted previously today I was rather surprised by the degree to which fellow Watcher’s Council had taken the ball and run with it on the NYT/SWIFT monitoring story. The Times has defended its actions in an editorial today:

Over the last year, The New York Times has twice published reports about secret antiterrorism programs being run by the Bush administration. Both times, critics have claimed that the paper was being unpatriotic or even aiding the terrorists. Some have even suggested that it should be indicted under the Espionage Act. There have been a handful of times in American history when the government has indeed tried to prosecute journalists for publishing things it preferred to keep quiet. None of them turned out well — from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the time when the government tried to enjoin The Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

As most of our readers know, there is a large wall between the news and opinion operations of this paper, and we were not part of the news side’s debates about whether to publish the latest story under contention — a report about how the government tracks international financial transfers through a banking consortium known as Swift in an effort to pinpoint terrorists. Bill Keller, the executive editor, spoke for the newsroom very clearly. Our own judgments about the uproar that has ensued would be no different if the other papers that published the story, including The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, had acted alone.

The Swift story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals. Terrorist groups would have had to be fairly credulous not to suspect that they would be subject to scrutiny if they moved money around through international wire transfers. In fact, a United Nations group set up to monitor Al Qaeda and the Taliban after Sept. 11 recommended in 2002 that other countries should follow the United States’ lead in monitoring suspicious transactions handled by Swift. The report is public and available on the United Nations Web site.

If sincere, I don’t think the Times appreciates quite how circumspect it must be in an era of Fourth Generation Warfare. The Times and other papers have not only revealed substantial details of intelligence operations but also of details of how to defeat body armor, and other operational details.

No one seems to have an acceptable solution to irresponsibility on the part of the press. Restraints on publication and official secrets acts seem counter-productive and are unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

Trent Telenko has introduced the latest suggestion in a guest post at Winds of Change: civil liability. If you’re familiar with Trent’s ideas, you won’t be surprised that his proposal is somewhat Draconian. I’m sure he thinks me weak-livered.

I think a better solution is to enforce the laws already on the books. Leakers should be prosecuted and punished whether they act in cahoots with or in opposition to the administration in power. I agree with what Democracy Project says:

If this or any administration has something worth keeping secret, it should be willing to seek prosecution of its own employees who break that trust. If Congress needs more information to perform its representative functions, it must be willing to be policed for those who break trust. If media are to be a “fourth estate” instead of a “fifth column,” it must respect judged national security and be willing to be restrained.

Britain’s Official Secrets Act indicates that such a broader law does not destroy democracy. The details of ours will be different, but the broad outlines are there.

A new paradigm of government-media-public interaction should not stop there, with more secrecy. It must simultaneously entail more openness and transparency by administrations. Justified or excessive paranoia by an administration leads to over-classification. A legislated procedure to both protect and prosecute excessive revealing of legitimate secrets, should encourage more, not less, attributed openness by government officials.

The pressure for public disclosure of government programs and policies will not cease. The government must speak “on the record” more openly about its policies and programs. Sure, critics will harp on this or that matter, but at least the lines of information and responsibility will be clearer to the public.

Being an open society has costs and one of those costs is that it’s harder to keep secrets. To balance that we need to demand a more collaborative disposition from government, political parties, and the media.

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