Loose Lips Sink Ships

Milipundit, a former enlisted sailor who now works for Representative Jack Kingston, laments that the NYT and other media outlets continually divulge secret operation, snarking, “Who needs a security clearance when you’ve got the Times?”

Michelle Malkin continues sounding that tune as well, with a lengthy roundup this morning of people lambasting NYT editor Bill Keller. She ran several amusing PhotoShops of WWII era propaganda posters over the weekend (here, here, and here):

NYT WWII Poster Shut the Hell UpNYT WWII Poster 1NYT WWII Poster 2NYT WWII Poster 3NYT WWII Poster 5NYT WWII Poster 4

Noel Sheppard goes so far as to suggest that the reporters in question be jailed.

Regardless of one’s views on whether the press has the right to publish secret information that it deems useful to the public–or whether doing so is morally objectionable or strategically dangerous–we should all be able to agree on one thing: The primary fault here is not with the NYT but rather those who have been untrusted with classified information and are leaking it to the press. Those people are in violation of their oath. The press is, at least arguably, doing their job.

UPDATE: Apparently, we can’t agree. Michael Barone asks, with no apparent irony, in an article with the implausible headline, “The New York Times at War With America,”

Why do they hate us? No, I’m not talking about Islamofascist terrorists. We know why they hate us: because we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, because we refuse to treat women as second-class citizens, because we do not kill homosexuals, because we are a free society.

No, the “they” I’m referring to are the editors of The New York Times. And do they hate us? Well, that may be stretching it. But at the least they have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety.

For his part, Keller argues,

The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest. For example, some members of the Administration have argued over the past three years that when our reporters describe sectarian violence and insurgency in Iraq, we risk demoralizing the nation and giving comfort to the enemy. Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials. Our default position — our job — is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not “why publish?” but “why would we withhold information of significance?” We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.

Glenn Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt both think Keller is either an idiot or thinks the American people are. Austin Bay isn’t much impressed, either. While I agree that parts of his “letter” are self-serving, the essential argument in the paragraph above strikes me as reasonable enough.

It’s true that any information shared with the American people is also thereby shared with our enemies. That’s problematic, to be sure. But Keller is right: Administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, have an unhealthy desire to operate free from scrutiny; reporters and their editors are too eager to risk national security for a big story. Yet, aside from obvious boundaries such as troop movements, the timing of operations, or the technical details of our intelligence operations, where this line is drawn is far from clear.

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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. DC Loser says:

    Is Milipundit talking about the Washington Times? That paper has disclosed more intelligence sources and methods in its pages than the NY Times ever could. But then again, if the agenda of the paper is one with which you agree, there’s no harm done. Right?

  2. legion says:

    James, I could not agree more. That’s been a pet peeve of mine for years – reporters aren’t telepathic, people have to leak information to them. But they’re the only ones people want to crucify whenever something like this heppens…

  3. Milipundit says:

    No matter what paper, there are certain standards that should be adhered to. Furthermore, those that leek sensitive information to the press should be dealt with accordingly.

    The problem is that until a paper publishes that information millions of people are not privy to it. This was not a whistle-blower outing a government operation that was stomping on ones civil rights. This was done only to further inflate an already healthy ego.

  4. Herb says:

    The NYT has the obligation as citizens of the US to first report any violations of the law. If someone leaks information that is classified, then that reporter has the duty and obligation as a citizen to report that person to the proper authorities so that action can be taken.

    Along with that, any newspaper or media that knowingly divulges classified information that aids or abets the enemies of the US are equally as guilty as the person that divulges that information.

    This crap of “doing their job”, “Freedom of the press” and “in the Publics intrest”, is not a passport for the media to put any Americans life in Jeopardy under any circumstances. It is funny that one sees only media persons and the “Hate Bush” democrats defending the NYT for their indiscretions. I guess we can expect that sort of thing from that croud.

    Lastly, Who in the hell does the NYT think they are by making my life more vulnerable to those who want to harm us and what right does the NYT have to make me, my family and every American less safe.

    I truly hope the NYT is hauled into Federal Court and prosecuted for their complete disregard of our security.

  5. Ugh says:

    This was not a whistle-blower outing a government operation that was stomping on ones civil rights.

    How do you know that?

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Can you imagine what would have happened if an American newpaper, and calling the political rag NY Times a newspaper is a stretch, published information about the Manhatten project before it was completed? Why is it that the “truth” to protect the public only gets published when people they don’t like are in office? This would have never seen the light of day during the Clinton administration. Bill Keller needs to stretch a rope.

  7. Stevely says:

    It takes two to tango here. Plenty of jail space for leakers and those in the press who publish national security secrets.

  8. just me says:

    While I think the NYT et al have been quite reckless in this, I do think the person(s) most culpable are the sources of the leaks.

    I think the administration should go full speed ahead in finding out who these leaks are, and charging/firing them as evidence indicates.

    I do think these episodes are a pretty good back up for why I am not keen on the press getting a blanket immunity to protect sources. When a source is committing a crime, the press should have to cough up their names or face charges for conspiracy.

  9. madmatt says:

    Gosh when it is a leak by the admin no problem…when it is a leak about the admin there is…maybe if they weren’t such amoral hacks at the whitehouse they wouldn’t leak so much!!!! Plus seeing as this program has been known about since just after 9/11 I don’t see what the problem is…

  10. Wayne says:

    Classified information release by the proper authorities is not a leak. One can argue weather they should or should not release it but it isnâ??t a leak. Unauthorized leaks of classified information is illegal and by definition a leak. The program was known since soon after 911 but not as many details were known until the NYT story. I suspect the leak came from someone like Valerie Plame and not from someone from within the administration.

  11. erg says:

    Why is it that the �truth� to protect the public only gets published when people they don�t like are in office? This would have never seen the light of day during the Clinton administration.

    That is a plain lie.

    Anyone remember Wen Ho Lee ? The NYTimes published a dozen stories about this case. That hurt the CLinton administration badly and probably ended the VP ambitions of Bill Richardson. And to top it all, the Wen Ho Lee story turned out to be not true, and the case was dismissed. The NYTimes just paid money to Lee to settle a civil suit.

    Also, those of us who have somewhat longer memories remember the NYTimes publishing a dozen Judith Miller pieces before the war (and a few afterwards) about WMDs in IRaq, and some highly alarmist reporting. None of the stories turned out to be true. I suppose the NYTimes is only biased when it suits your purpose.

  12. erg says:

    Unauthorized leaks of classified information is illegal and by definition a leak.

    Maybe we should start with the people who leak information to the Weakly Standard ?

    From what I understand, in this particular case, it may have been people at SWIFT who leaked the story (or at least confirmed it). Not being government employees, they have probably not broken any laws, although they could probably still be fired over it.

  13. Wayne says:

    Non-government organizations that work with governments often have confidentially clauses and can be held in violation of the law by leaking classified information. Just let a Boeing Engineer leak classified information on a military device and see what happens.

  14. And what, pray tell, is the NY Times rationale for keeping the identities of its informants, who have now demonstrably broken the law, secret?

  15. Elmo says:

    I admit it. I bought a NYT’s once this year. And read it. I completely ignored all the bullsh*t masquerading as news and reporting. Not reading a single word thereof. I did find the sports, lifestyle, travel, arts ….. all very worthwhile. A cut above even. Well, more so. But afterwards, I felt dirty.

    The NYT’s can no longer separate their personal politics, from their reporting of same. Thusly they can no longer be considered a newspaper. Easier to just ignore (when possible). Personally doesn’t do my spirit good to sift through the #%&*@$ they print (like this morning’s coverage of the Israeli hostage. Quite disgusting it was. As usual).

    The future of anti-terror mil ops will be different. Evolving to something quite speedy and yet again even more secret. F*ck the NYT’s. All the way up with a red hot poker. AND their liberal apologists. There is no politics in right and wrong. There is no right to slaughter innocents (still, I must be an idiot for not having bought large swaths of real estate in Private, Idaho. Where all the libs have settled. Before land values skyrocketed).

  16. Anderson says:

    (1) For some reason, the Wall Street Journal isn’t getting pilloried like the NYT, despite their having run the same story on the same day, IIRC. Can’t imagine why not.

    (2) Can you imagine what would have happened if an American newpaper, and calling the political rag NY Times a newspaper is a stretch, published information about the Manhatten project before it was completed?

    No, but I *can* imagine what would have happened if an American newspaper, and calling the then-political rag Chicago Tribune a newspaper is a stretch, published information about our secret breaking of the Japanese naval cipher, which actually WAS a secret–the Japanese had no idea we were reading their mail.

    Pretty much nothing. A grand jury was convened, but no indictment was issued or charges otherwise brought.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    James, I’m a bit puzzled. While I think that a lot of the criticism the NYT is receiving is over the top, it’s unclear to me what the �essential argument� you’re inclined to agree with is. It seems to me that the heart of the paragraph is that there’s an “official line” and that the government wants the press to adhere to it. Is there an example of that? Is asking that secret and useful devices apparently within the law and apparently under Congressional scrutiny remain secret an “official line”? Or is it common sense?

    The position being advocated seems to me less James Madison and more William Vanderbilt: “The public be damned!”

  18. James Joyner says:

    Dave: Keller clearly thinks the public is served by knowing about these programs. After all, they’re incredibly controversial, with even many conservatives thinking they’re a bad idea. The administration would, of course, prefer that people not know. Partly, that’s out of legitimate national security concerns; partly, that’s to avoid the controversy.

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    I suppose. In my view while the talk of treason is hyperventilating (the word has a meaning and this ain’t it) the paper acted imprudently and excessively by publishing, which served no public interest other than to demonstrate that the NYT doesn’t like Bush or his Administration. We already knew that.

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    Let me make my point another way. The Times doesn’t just publish every fact in its hands under the rubric of the public’s right to know. For example, the identity of their source on the story would be pretty darned interesting and they haven’t published that.

    So the NYT has a hierarchy of values. What’s the hierarchy? Clearly, the public right to know is not the highest value nor is the secrecy of effective public programs that served the public good. So what’s the highest value?

    Apparently, the Times’s right to publish and it seems to me that’s fairly shallow.

  21. I just reread the NYT piece and it is unclear to me how it amounts to much more than a long-winded version of: the administration is gathering financial data to try and catch terrorists. I am not sure how this would be something especially new to al Qaeda.

    Part of what is new, it seems to me, is that scope of the data collection and the continued story of scant oversight.

    At a minimum it is no surprise that the NYT thought it was news given the previous data-gathering stories. Once a patterned is formed, the press is more willing to continue try and find new pieces to fit into it.

    In other words, if there previous program did not exist (or, at least, were unknown) the NYT’s editors may have been more prone to acquiesce to the administration’s request.

  22. Anderson says:

    If anyone’s still reading this thread, Jack Balkin makes a nice point:

    And just the other day, government sources leaked– to the New York Times!– information from a classified briefing about plans to scale down U.S. forces in Iraq. The Administration quickly confirmed the disclosure, so quickly in fact, that there is little doubt that the Administration was happy that the news leaked out. After all, the leak sent signals to the American people that we would not be in Iraq forever, and that is a point particularly worth making as the 2006 elections near. Yet one would think that secret military plans for withdrawal of American troops are exactly the sort of information that our opponents in the Iraqi insurgency would like to know about. And yet, unlike the disclosure of the secret banking surveillance program, the Administration did not suggest that *this* leak to the New York Times was “disgraceful,” to use President Bush’s words. And unlike the financial records story, no Congressman, to my knowledge has demanded that the New York Times be prosecuted for it. One can only conclude that is because the Administration figured that leak of possible troop withdrawals benefited the Administration’s domestic political agenda.

    For this administration to wax apoplectic over leaks of classified info is just too comical to have any effect, outside the Fox/NRO/OTB-commenters crowd.