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” — short for signals intelligence — 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    The press has set itself up as the ultimate last word in matters of National Securty and their famous excuse of “The people have a right to know” is just that, an excuse for their treason. These Left leaning biased organizations have for years abused the “Freedom of the Press” issue and decided they were not only pervayers of classified information but the last word over and above our National Securty issues. On many issues, the people DO NOT have the “right to know and those who print classified information shoule be barred from having any information given to them. They should lose thier place in all government press confrences as well as to thier so called “inside sources” The President should use an executive order to forbid any government employee to have contact with any of these biased press organizations.

    The Press has demonstrated to everyone that “They cannot be trusted” with any information pretaining to our government.

    It is to bad that they cannot be prosecuted for their misdeeds.

    FDR and Harry Truman would have thrown everyone of them into prison.

  2. odograph says:

    I’m a conservative, so naturally I don’t trust the government to run everything … oh, wait.

    That’s kind of a joke, but it cuts to the core of what used to be our conservative values. We believed, among other things, that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We campaigned against concentrations of power for that reason.

    For some absurd reason, conservatives who are a little bit slow don’t see where they’ve ended up – as big-government boosters, using FDR of all people as their model.

    Today, we have news that is positively Orwellian, as the government works to control what we hear, and suppress facts they find uncomfortable:

    For those keeping track, the US still refuses to keep accurate civilian casualty numbers, and just complains when anyone else publishes a count.

    This is not the Republican America I signed onto in the 1980s.

  3. James Joyner says:

    odo: Conservatives have, for as long as I can recall, favored strong federal executive control of national security policy. Conservatives traditionally oppose federal regulation of the economy and other things traditionally within the province of state power but military and security policy are decidedly not in that realm.

    And when has the United States kept a list of civilian casualties in previous conflicts? If so, I’m not aware of it. If anything, we’re probably doing a better job now than ever. Bush’s answer of “about 30,000” in a recent press conference is well within the range of non-kooky independent estimates.

  4. odograph says:

    You know this goes beyond a “strong executive.” It has clearly gone upside down, with conservatives arguing against their number one issue … freedom.

    I don’t know about other conflicts, but I do know that the casualty count issue was brought up in the first months of the war, and that the administration refused all calls to monitor civilian casualties.

    It has been clear, for years, that they don’t want to know. Now, I’m sure, as I’ve written before that many in the armed forces are making a commited effort to keep casualties to a “minimum” but at the top level the hypocracy is shattering.

    If you don’t count, you don’t care, and “minimum” is just a sound-bite.

  5. odograph says:

    BTW, to you remember the “kabuki theater” that resulted when Pres. Bush mentioned a number for civilian casualties? He said 30K, and the Whitehouse immediately clarified that this wasn’t an official number, but that “he’d gotten it from the press.”

    He’d gotten it from the press?

    If there was one man on the planet who should _know_ it was the President. If there was one man who should be informing us, leading on this vital issue, it was the President.

    Instead they were careful to dance, and say the number wasn’t really a number. Why do we take this?

    (“Vital” in the moral sense, but also in the harsh political sense. We will not get any real kind of “victory” if we turn the population against us. Oh wait, that’s what manipulating the press is for … right?)

  6. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Odd o graph. You are not a conservative. Do you remember what the press did for Viet Nam? How many civilian casualties were there after your side pulled out support for the South? I would bet hard earned cash you are one of those neomarxist that infect the democratic party. How about it? Is there more red to you than the color of your blood? I’ll bet we could get to to admit hating the President without resorting to harsh measures.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Odo: You’re confusing conservatives and libertarians. For conservatives, the number one issue is security or values, not freedom. Otherwise, conservatives would have different positions on many social issues, notably abortion, and law and order.

    And your argument on civilian casualties makes little sense to me. Yes, minimizing them is important on moral as well as practical grounds. But publicizing the figures surely is helpful only to the enemy, especially insofar as the enemy is causing most of those casualties yet the United States is blamed for them.

    I don’t recall Bill Clinton making announcements about civilian casualties in Somalia or Kosovo, for example. See this Human Rights Watch article from 2000, for example.

  8. odograph says:

    I think Ronald Reagan would have been shocked by the line:

    “For conservatives, the number one issue is security or values, not freedom.”

    Libertarians are further out there, on both economic and social issues … but jeez louise, remember little books like “free to choose?” The idea then (not so long ago really) was that personal freedom in democracies and in the market were naturally integrated. You could not restrict individual freedom without bringing down the whole “package” of democratic government.

    Now, “modern ‘conservatives'” are attempting to do just that. They are removing individual freedoms … really just to cement the power of “The State.”

    Remember when power of “The State” was something Americans distrusted?

    (Your casualties paragraph is just embarassing. It borders on “if you care about the civilians you are only helping the enemy.” Think about that.

    Re. “Bill Clinton didn’t count casualties in a situation totally unlike this one, so why should we?” What, did you rob a kid on the way to elementary school to get that argument?)

  9. odograph says:

    Jack – do you realize how well your little speach would fit into something like Orwell’s Animal Farm?

    You are saying “do not question The State”

  10. Jonk says:

    This is one of those conversations that goes around in circles…no amount of talk will ever bring the other side around. Period.

    Revealing state secrets, i.e. intelligence gathering techniques, is a crime. Period. But, if the administration goes after the criminals, they will be accused of shutting down the press and the free flow of information.

    I feel that no matter what happens now, that the fabric of our nation has been torn irreparably.

  11. Herb says:


    What in the world do casualty counts have to do with our “Big Mouth Media”?

    I think, from reading your comments that you are indeed a “DID” (democrat in desguise) shooting off about being a conservative. I think you missed the boat on exactly what a conservative is. and one thing they are not is a person who constantly runs the conservatives into the ground. I would suggest that you stick to the subject, Our big mouthed press, who don’t give a damn about securty in favor of their own personal gain.

    Odo, you just don’t get it.

  12. Bithead says:

    You know this goes beyond a “strong executive.”

    Well, that’s odd, Odo… FDR didn’t seem to think so.

  13. bindare says:

    Asking the MSM not to print something that is a national secret but at the same time potentially damaging to the Republican administration is a waste time. Bush would do more to stem the hemorrhaging of secrets by vigorouisly pursuing the leakers and throwing the book at them.

    It doesn’t matter if the leaks are the result of inter-agency squabbles or the Bush hatred of Clinton appointees. National security is at risk and Bush looks weak and in-effective in controlling this problem. He needs to take names and kick ass now!

  14. odograph says:

    A conservative believes in personal freedom, and personal responsibility.

    That second bit is what sets us apart from the “if it feels good, do it” style of the libertarians.

    We could do a simple test on each of these issues, and see if they fall on the right side of the freedom/responsibility divide:

    Freedom of the Press – easy. Our government was founded on freedom of the press, by writers and printers. If you’s have asked someone like Ben Franklin what to do about press you don’t like, he’d have told you to write something yourself in response – just as James is doing here.

    Domestic Spying – easy. Our government has always known that information gathering was at times neccessary. Spying is hardly newer than the republic. The founders just thought it should have a system of oversight, to prevent “unreasonable” search and sezure. These recent cases have not been about whether or not we should “search” … but rather about whether we should honor the constition as we do those searches.

    So why are the defenders of freedom, and the “originalists” on constituinal law, on the wrong side of these issues?

    Why do they deny their own beliefs?

  15. odograph says:

    BTW, it’s a BS argument that the Times piece “revealed NSA techniques.”

    There are far more detailed technical pieces on the web, and they were there before this piece was ever published. What, you don’t think terrorists know how to “google?”

    Again, geez louise. The article was not about “techniques” it was about bypassing US law.

  16. DaveD says:

    I remain conflicted on this issue (some might say wishy-washy). Perhaps I do not understand the law. Terrorism supported by Islamic Fundamentalism is maybe the most pervasive and elusive threats the Western world has ever confronted. I can accept that confidential surveillance is a necessary weapon against this threat and I accept that I don’t have to know the details. I also think it was quite smarmy for the NYT to publish this and I really believe doing so at the time of the Iraq election was particularly cynical. However, I remain uncomfortable with the lack of communication with the FISA court. It is my understanding that through this act the government has the leeway to inform the court after the fact that a surveillance act was initiated – to accommodate any urgency necessary to avoid a lost opportunity. As much as I support the President, I feel there was an effort to eliminate the reporting to the FISA Court completely at any point down the road. I am happy to be told I am wrong but if the law is clear about retroactive reporting and the administration actively tried to bypass even that aspect of the law then the administration would have to justify why they feel their hands are tied even under these conditions. Frankly, I give Bush a lot of credit for taking clear responsibility for ordering this secret surveillance.

  17. Herb says:


    You talk about “unreasonable search ans sezure” then why are you Not commenting more about the unreasonable sezure of peoples private property, by cities thruout this country, so that some political cronie can build a shopping center.
    Where are the “checks and balances” for these sezures that came from a leftty liberal bunch of Supreme Court Judges. Why weren’t you spewing you rhotoric about these lefty judges like you do about Bush. Bush is “doing his job” trying to protect you and I and people like you give him hell for it, but when some liberal does something worse, you don’t say a thing.

    Yes Odo, tou truely are a liberal no matter how you try to pass yourself off.

  18. bryan says:

    I am more troubled by the insistence by the editors not to confirm nor deny their meetings. They clearly haven’t learned the ethical guideline about openness.

  19. Anderson says:

    Hearin’ ya, Odo. Edmund Burke is spinning like a top.

  20. Reporter for Doody says:

    The leakers of classified information to the media should be tried and punished as necessary.

  21. anjin-san says:

    Funny how the Bushites are outraged by the Times “leak” but did not give a damn about the Plume outing. Well actually its sad.

    But hey, I learned something today. Freedom apparently is not a conservative value.

    Man, what frigging planet am I on?

  22. LJD says:

    Odo- not surprising you don’t know what your affiliation is, you don’t know the difference between a libertarian and a conservative.

    Anjin- You must be on Mars, or Pluto. Anywhere but Earth.

    Back on the subject. The media is what lacks personal responsibility. How many times have we seen a false story line published for its sensationalism, or political angle, regardless. There may be a brief outrage, but such indiscretion in journalism should be career-ending. In a time of war, risking national security to slam the President is unacceptable.

    This is not Orwelian thinking. It used to be that our citizens were united against the enemy. The left has managed to falsify so many stories that they don;t even know there IS an enemy (outside of THIS country).

  23. jimbo says:

    Guess I agree with Odo although I don’t understand what the number of civilian casualties has to do with it (BTW who do we blame for the kids who were blown up on a school bus or the kids who were blown up because they had gathered around a US soldier or marine? Just askin’.) This whole issue needs to be hashed out calmly. We should look forward to hearings by Spector’s committee. At the end of the day, though, Democrats and liberals are going to come out as real losers on this. When there is a gang like AQ out there with operatives posted in this country ready to kill as many US civilians as possible, what kind of president do you want in office? One who says, “Let’s take this up with the court, maybe in 6 months they’ll allow us to wiretap these guys and find out what they’re up to.” Or one who says, “Find those guys and stop ’em. Don’t worry about the legalities. I’ll take the fall.” The rational conservative or libertarian response is to weigh the danger to civil liberties against the danger to our very lives. The hallmark of conservatism and libertarianism is belief that there are no easy choices.

  24. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘Libertarians are further out there, on both economic and social issues ‘

    Out there? Protecting individual freedom and personal choice is out there? I’ll offer what I hope is accepted as constructive criticism but probably won’t be, but here goes. Since you apparently know nothing about modern Libertarianism it’s probably best you refrain from discussing your uninformed opinions.

  25. odograph says:

    Jimbo, the casualty thing was connected for me partly because of the order I was reading the news yesterday morning … and it struck me that it tied together from the angle of “what do we, as citizens in a democracy, deserve to know?”

    I think we owe it to ourselves to understand how “minimum civilian casualties” are playing out, for both moral and practical reasons.

    WRT this all being to “protect us” … I think the fear gets a little bit irrational at times. I worked in a 12 story office building during 9/11, but way out in the suburbs. Some of the poor women in our office were actually scared someone would come crash a plane into us. We’ve got to be patient with people like that, and help them understand the difference between their actual risk and their perceived risk.

    I think our armies and our law enforcement is adequate to deal with terrorists. We don’t need to break the law to compensate for some irrational fear.

    And if we need to change the laws, or adjust the laws … in a democracy we can certainly do that.

  26. odograph says:

    P.S. – You know everyone of us here (in the US) is more likely to be injured today in a traffic accident than in a terroist attack.

    (Approx 40,000 people die each year?)

    Do you think we should restrict our driving freedom? Should we put speed-limiting govenors on all cars? Should we add monitoring eqiupent to every car to monitor speed (as they’ve suggested in Oregon)?

    (I think we react differently to terrorists because they are a “new” kind of risk, one that we haven’t processed, or lived all our lives with, like driving in traffic.)

  27. James Joyner says:

    Odo: I agree to a point but terrorists are an active threat. If people on the highways were actually trying to kill people, we’d react differently. And, actually, putting governors and such on cars would make a lot of sense.

    I’m not sure what that has to do with whether people with access to classified info should take it to the press or whether the press should print things that might endanger the nation’s security.

  28. odograph says:

    I think that is an emotional response. If we are tough guys (and I think we are), what does “active” mean, really?

    WRT “why traffic?”

    It’s just a freedom (or privacy) versus security (or safety) trade-off that we are all familiar with. Certainly, the Oregon (GPS monitoring) proposal spawned a raft of freedom/privacy responses.

  29. odograph says:

    BTW, as another illustration, how many murders are there in the US each year (do those qualify as “active”?)?

    … and what is your position on gun control?

  30. LJD says:

    (eyes rolling back with disgust) …as if legal gun ownership had anything at all to do with an increase in the crime rate… sheesh You call youself a conservative?

  31. odograph says:

    You aren’t connecting the dots LJD. I’m not advocating gun control, I’m asking why the same argument doesn’t apply to email/phone conversations.

    “…as if legal [communications] had anything at all to do with an increase in the [terrorism] rate… sheesh You call youself a conservative?”

  32. LJD says:

    I can’t see a gun-ownership advocate making such a careless analogy… Failure to see the GWOT as more than a simple crime/police issue is the classic failure of leftward thinking.

    “Legal communications” aren’t the problem. Aiding the enemy is. If you don’t see how publicly “spilling the beans” aids terrorists, then you simply choose not to accept reality. Perhaps a dirty bomb will change your mind…

  33. odograph says:

    The fact is, protections against search and seizure, and the right to bear arms, are both guaranteed in the Constitution. On search, it is pretty clear:

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    Now why, suddenly, after decades of supporting the right to bear arms, are “conservatives” giving up on the Consitution?

    Why do you want to scare me with a “dirty bomb” and make me change my mind? Isn’t that exactly the kind of argument gun-control advocates made, when they tried to scare people with “saturday night specials” and tried to get them to change their mind?

    Both are cheap appeals to fear, in order to get you to give up your Constitutional freedoms.

  34. anjin-san says:

    Hmmm I am in favor of freedom and against outing CIA agents for political gain. LJD exactly why does that piss you off?

  35. LJD says:

    No idea what tangent you’re off on. Data mining from masses of information inclduing cell, internet, and international phone calls does not amount to “illegal searches”.

    The subject here is the media informing terrorists of our techniques for locating them, to stop them from killing us. Period. Again, how exactly does this have a damn thing to do with controlling the lawful ownership of firearms by responsible American citizens?

  36. LJD says:


    Freedom for terrorists? I am against that.

    Outing CIA agents? It didn’t happen. That’s why. If you got away from the kool-aid you would know that.

  37. anjin-san says:


    Please show one post I have made where I advocate “freedom for terrorists” or support or anything else beside hoping bin laden faces a firing squad. (hey bush, remember bin laden?)

    Its an old tatic you are using LJD, attack the patriotisim of anyone who does not toe the party line. The fascists and communists made an art form of it and it does not suprise me that you resort to it, especially given your rather limited debate skills.

  38. LJD says:

    Not attacking your patriotism, just a closer examination of your methods to wage this war on terror. You would tie the hands of our government, crippling their ability to defend us right here in the U.S. I guess you think there aren’t any enemies in your beloved socialist homeland, that they’re running around Afghanistan escaping our inept troops…
    So if you think that the FBI listening to international calls made by terrorists is a violation of “freedom”, by association you appear concerned about the terrorists’ “rights”.