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Long before Edward Snowden, even before Bradley Manning, Washington has over the past decade — and with growing prosecutorial zeal — focused on deterring leakers. The government could do many things to cut down on leaks, such as repairing the broken whistle-blower process and fixing a system that rewards overclassification.
But above all else, engaging journalists and the public about the possible harms from such stories with greater detail and realism would acknowledge that leaks will occur, improve the government’s credibility on such matters, enhance our national security, and strengthen the tense but delicate relationship between the media and government that our nation’s founders created.
In 2006, at a moment of high tensions between the media and government, journalists convened by the Aspen Institute identified several best practices when reporting based on classified information: Carefully consider the consequences of publishing. Take government concerns seriously. Check sources. Tell readers when making agreements with governments regarding what stays in (or is left out of) a story.
Around that same time, some in Congress called for the prosecution of The New York Times’ top editor; others sought to rewrite the Espionage Act. Just last year the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to cut a wide valley between journalists and the intelligence community. That would have seriously damaged the flow of news about global events and crossed that delicate line our founders drew two centuries ago.
The government also needs a few best practices when dealing with the media on sensitive national security or foreign affairs stories. To focus on ending or mitigating harm, the government should do more to better engage the press at key points: (1) when information is leaked to reporters, but before stories are published; (2) after the leaked information is published or broadcast; and, most importantly, (3) when there is no immediate need to respond to leaked information.
First, when journalists approach officials before a story becomes public, the government should do a better job engaging the media. When The Associated Press in 2012 revealed that the CIA foiled a bomb plot against an American airliner, the AP held that story for five days. The story went to the public only after AP-initiated conversations with the government assured the news organization that publishing raised no national security concerns.
The system worked until the Justice Department subpoenaed the AP’s phone records soon after, an action that has chilled sources within agencies from talking with reporters. That’s unfortunate, because it is precisely those pre-publication conversations that are vital to identifying potential harms.
Second, the government should do a better job explaining the foreseeable harm after a controversial story appears by carefully declassifying and disclosing more about certain leaks without putting lives or operations at risk. Go back to the AP story, where the government has not identified any harm that ensued. Perhaps there really was no harm at all. Absent specificity, the public is left to question whether vague claims of harm are credible. If there is specific, identifiable threat to human life but no one believes it, no one benefits.
Finally, not enough effort has been put into improving the communication between the media and government outside the heat of a breaking story. The late Jack Nelson, a legendary journalist who reported from Washington for the Los Angeles Times, encouraged a “dialogue” between government officials leading national security and intelligence agencies and media leaders. Such conversations occurred periodically in the months and years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but they should happen regularly.
When the media and government better understand each other’s concerns, they have better conversations on whether an individual story will threaten operational details or sources and methods.
Working more actively to mitigate possible harms from disclosing certain information reinforces the free flow of information and the government’s ability to keep secrets in the name of national security. Stop trying to stop leaks. Instead, do more to ensure any claims of harm are backed up with credible, verifiable explanations. Engage more to mitigate possible harms when controversy arises. We owe the framers of our Constitution our gratitude and our commitment to maintaining this vital bulwark of democracy.
Rick Blum is director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media associations committed to promoting transparency in government. The Associated Press is a member.