Attack secrets, not leaks

DAVID GREENBERG teaches media studies and history at Rutgers University and is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image"(W.W. Norton, 2003).

DURING THE Iran-Contra scandal, commentator Michael Kinsley (late of this page) memorably made what he called “the case for glee.” Amid much journalistic fretting that no one should enjoy the Reagan administration’s troubles, Kinsley replied that it was natural, even healthy, for the opposition to to crack a smile.

With the Valerie Plame case, however, too many journalists and liberals are letting glee overtake principle. They are delighting in the indictment of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis Libby, in the departure of reporter Judith Miller from the New York Times, and now in the apology that the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward gave for not telling his editors that an administration source told him in June 2003 of Plame’s status as a CIA agent. (For any reader opening the newspaper for the first time in two years, White House officials leaked Plame’s status to reporters after her husband went public with information partly discrediting the administration’s case for the Iraq war.)

As a critic of both the Iraq war and the administration’s political ruthlessness, I appreciate the satisfaction of seeing a White House operative nabbed for what seems like petty revenge. As a former and still-occasional journalist, I agree with the criticisms of Miller’s credulous prewar reporting, which helped legitimize claims that Saddam Hussein posed a danger to the United States. As a former assistant (and still a friend) to Woodward, I’ve often heard the rap that he’s too close to those in power.

However, I also believe that the frame that the news media have used for presenting this story is badly warped.

Instead of dwelling on horse-race details about who leaked what to whom and when, pundits should be debating the fundamental issue: Should leaking be criminalized in the first place? Instead of cheering the Plame investigation and vilifying the reporters caught in its web, we should be deploring the probe and applauding the reporters for gaining access to classified material, however ugly the leakers’ motives.


A generation ago, high officials -- including Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- routinely hid facts about the Vietnam War, Watergate and other matters. We discovered how our leaders cynically used national security as an excuse to shield their deeds from view. Americans grew outraged and implemented reforms to lessen government secrecy.

The commentary in the Plame case, in contrast, has barely challenged the legitimacy of keeping information concealed in the first place. Even traditional critics of government secrecy have bought into the unfounded claim that publicizing Plame’s name somehow compromised our safety.

Some facts -- the whereabouts of troops in the field, or the names of covert agents directly in harm’s way -- warrant secrecy. But history teaches us that the vast majority of confidential material could be aired without imperiling the nation. Prosecutions, and even campaigns of vilification such as those aimed at Libby and Karl Rove, dangerously reinforce the undeserved sanctity that claims of national security enjoy.

The reporters involved have also endured unfair abuse. After courageously serving 85 days in jail, Miller was thanked with a string of attacks in her own newspaper -- not just by columnists but also within supposedly neutral news stories -- and her effective dismissal from the paper. Colleagues seized on her self-description as “Ms. Run Amok” to imply that she was an incorrigible rule-breaker, forgetting that reporters who wander off their beats, or defy bureaucratic rules, often unearth information that we most need to know.

Similarly, fellow journalists have distastefully badgered Robert Novak, the conservative columnist who first reported Plame’s CIA status, to “come clean.” But Novak, embroiled in a sticky legal situation and having promised sources anonymity, has legitimate reasons for staying silent.

And now Woodward is being faulted for not revealing sooner that he knew about Plame’s CIA status -- though he too was bound by confidentiality pledges and was subpoenaed to do so only two weeks ago.

Those who deplore the Plame leak have other quibbles with the conduct of Libby, Rove, Miller et al, and I don’t wish to rebut every one. But if you start by doubting, rather than presuming, the awfulness of the Plame leak, then most of those quibbles fade into irrelevance.

The broader picture is that during the Bush administration, government attacks on free speech and the press are mounting and having a chilling effect.In August, the government indicted two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee essentially for receiving classified data from a Defense Department official. On Nov. 4, Republicans called for an inquiry into who leaked the news that the administration has been using “black sites” in East European countries to interrogate and perhaps torture prisoners.

The bottom line is that we need more secret material made public, not less. Think what would have happened if, as the administration ramped up for war in 2001 and 2002, every piece of information shown to President Bush in his morning briefings had been printed in the Los Angeles Times. We may not have gone to war at all, but if we had, none of us, surely, would have been able to say we were misled.