Bush Pleas with Media Not to Reveal Security Secrets
Howie Kurtz says that the White House has been lobbying newspaper editors to hold back coverage of stories that might damage counterterrorism efforts, with little success.
President Bush has been summoning newspaper editors lately in an effort to prevent publication of stories he considers damaging to national security. The efforts have failed, but the rare White House sessions with the executive editors of The Washington Post and New York Times are an indication of how seriously the president takes the recent reporting that has raised questions about the administration’s anti-terror tactics.
Leonard Downie Jr., The Post’s executive editor, would not confirm the meeting with Bush before publishing reporter Dana Priest’s Nov. 2 article disclosing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe used to interrogate terror suspects. Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, would not confirm that he, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman had an Oval Office sit-down with the president on Dec. 5, 11 days before reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that Bush had authorized eavesdropping on Americans and others within the United States without court orders. But the meetings were confirmed by sources who have been briefed on them but are not authorized to comment because both sides had agreed to keep the sessions off the record. The White House had no comment.
“When senior administration officials raised national security questions about details in Dana’s story during her reporting, at their request we met with them on more than one occasion,” Downie says. “The meetings were off the record for the purpose of discussing national security issues in her story.” At least one of the meetings involved John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, and CIA Director Porter Goss, the sources said.
“This was a matter of concern for intelligence officials, and they sought to address their concerns,” an intelligence official said. Some liberals criticized The Post for withholding the location of the prisons at the administration’s request.
This is a tricky issue for the press. Presidents have played the “national security” card quite often and rather cavalierly at times, so the press is naturally suspicious that the main objective is avoiding political damage rather than actual harm to the nation. Still, revealing sources and methods of intelligence collection can indeed be quite dangerous.
Not only have the papers run with stories such as the NSA surveillance controversy and the “secret prisons” flap referenced in the above piece, but they are even running purely speculative pieces like yesterday’s LAT story by Josh Meyer and Joseph Menn, “U.S. Spying Is Much Wider, Some Suspect.”
President Bush has acknowledged that several hundred targeted Americans were wiretapped without warrants under the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program, and now some U.S. officials and outside experts say they suspect that the government is engaged in a far broader U.S. surveillance operation. Although these experts have no specific evidence, they say that the NSA has a vast array of satellites and other high-tech tools that it could be using to eavesdrop on a much larger cross-section of people in the United States without permission from a court.
The NSA conducts such “wholesale” surveillance continuously almost everywhere else in the world. It does so by using a sprawling network of land-based satellite transponder stations and friendly foreign intelligence agencies and telecommunication companies to collect millions of phone calls, e-mails and other communications. Powerful NSA supercomputers search this “sigint” Ã¢€” short for signals intelligence Ã¢€” for words that might suggest terrorist plots, such as “bomb,” then pass the information to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
This has fed a vicious cycle, where administrations are increasingly reluctant to share information with the press and the press is even less likely to believe the White House when it cries “national security.”
Update: Michelle Malkin argues that we should follow Peter Fitzgerald’s lead and put reporters who refuse to reveal their sources in illegal leaks of classified information in jail. She also has a letter from someone noting that lower level personnel would be severely punished, at the cost of their career and livelihood, for much smaller infractions.
That’s certainly the case. Shades of Sandy Berger in that regard.