A Secret the NYT Kept vs. Those It Did Not
Scott Johnson contrasts the NYT’s silence on the David Rohde kidnapping to protect the safety of their reporter with “the Times’s illegal exposure of the NSA terrorist eavesdropping program in December 2005, as well as its exposure of the Treasury Department’s terrorist-finance tracking program in June 2006. Whereas the reporting of Rohde’s apprehension may have endangered his life, the disclosure of the NSA terrorist eavesdropping and terrorist finance tracking programs only threatened the security of the United States.”
First, the assertion that what the NYT did in publishing classified information was “illegal” is quite dubious for reasons I explained in my January 2006 post “Can NYT Be Prosecuted for Publishing Classified Info?” (itself a response to an article by Johnson). See also my related post “Leaks, Whistleblowers, and Media Shield Laws.”
Further, while the juxtaposition had occurred to me as well, the cases are clearly different. In the Rohde situation, there was clear and compelling reason to believe that a man’s life was in danger:
“From the early days of this ordeal, the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several governments and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. “The kidnappers initially said as much. We decided to respect that advice, as we have in other kidnapping cases, and a number of other news organizations that learned of David’s plight have done the same. We are enormously grateful for their support.”
No such information existed with regard to the eavesdropping story. What was put at risk was the secrecy of a government program, the legality of which is still being debated. The “security of the United States” was put in danger only to the extent that 1) the program was effective and 2) the public knowledge that such a program existed undermined the program’s effectiveness. Both of those are, at best, highly debatable.
While I may well have decided against publishing the story had I been the publisher of the NYT, I can certainly understand running it given the strong questions about the propriety of the program, including a seeming gross violation of the 4th Amendment rights of a wide swath of Americans. Weighed against a highly questionable “national security” claim, that’s a pretty compelling reason to publish. Otherwise, we’re left with a situation where the president is free to flout the law so long as he asserts a “national security” rationale and stamps a project Top Secret.
UPDATE: Marc Danziger weighs in with a much better point than Johnson’s. Revisiting the old Mike Wallace thing about how he’d simply film a story of a American soldiers being ambushed rather than helping them because he’s not there as an American but only as a journalist, he muses,
And I can imagine how, when Rohde’s saw the uniforms of the US troops and knew that meant he was now safe, his heart must have lifted. And what’s wrong with that, of course is that he wants – as the Col. Connell suggests – to be able to claim sanctuary from his countrymen. Now I don’t know Rohde’s work, and I’m not going to claim that he’s remotely where Wallace claimed to be while sitting in the comfort of a videotaped seminar. But his institution is. And that’s a problem to me. Because it was US soldiers who gave Rohde’s sanctuary, not some mercenary force fighting in the name of the NY Times or international journalism.
The other problem is, if anything, more serious. And it is the simple fact that we are increasingly living in a society that plays by Ottoman rules; meaning that what the rules are depend – of course – on who you are. That’s not something we will survive for long, and simply put, it needs to be exposed and stamped out anywhere we see it.
So I’m glad that the NY Times and journalists could sit on an exciting story to help save one of their own. In the future, will they do this to save some random civilian, or some US soldier?
It’s an interesting question, indeed.