Top Editors Joust With Former CIA Official Over Disclosures

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By: Joe Strupp

Conflicts involving national security and the press were front and center at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference on Friday as top editors from The New York Times and The Washington Post — Jill Abramson and Leonard Downie Jr. — squared off against a former CIA director over when and how classified information should be reported.

John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA and now a fellow at The Brookings Institution, said disclosures in the Post and Times in recent years about secret surveillance of bank records, warrant-less wiretaps, and secret prisons had hurt the nation?s ability to fight the war on terror.

?The more we tell them about how we do what we do, the more clues they have to do what they do,? McLaughlin told the audience of editors. ?These stories can, at the same time, inform the public in ways that are important, and at the same time endanger national security.? He added that he is not in favor of prosecuting newspapers for such actions, but warned that continued disclosures will hurt security efforts.

?I wonder if you are really held accountable,? McLaughlin added. ?I read the [Times bank monitoring] story and I did not see any evidence of [governmental] abuse. We now have a tougher time tracking terrorist suspects.?

Post Executive Editor Downie and Abramson, managing editor of the Times, quickly disagreed.

Abramson said the bank monitoring story, for example, had not adversely impacted the program?s ability to track down terrorists. ?I have seen that the program is working as well as it has,? she said.

Downie said that such disclosures are not made lightly. ?These decisions never take place in a vacuum,? he said. ?We do gather a lot of information.? He said the Post regularly seeks feedback from government officials, even asking straight out what might happen if the information is disclosed. ?The decisions are always difficult, we are most interested in the facts. We are not impressed by empty platitudes of national security.?

Abramson said similar reviews occur at the Times: ?These are wrenching decisions. It boils down in the end that none of us take the national security of our country casually. We, as all citizens do, have a vital stake in the national security of our country.?

In the Times? bank monitoring story and secret wiretapping story, ?what you had in both cases was a very difficult balancing test,? she said. ?The discussions with the government went on for many months.?

A fourth panelist, Geoffery R. Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, offered a middle view, stating that the process now used by the government to protect security and the press to ferret out information seems to work well. ?As long as people in the press are thinking about it in a reasonable manner, then it is probably the case that the decisions will be arguable in one way or another,? he said, adding later, ?I don?t see anything happening in the present that says that it is not working.?

But when a member of the audience asked about the influence of the Internet on such disclosures, the panelists looked at the impact of having some piece of classified information revealed to a blogger or amateur journalist with a Web site. ?I think it is inevitable,? said Stone. ?Today, you can get out to the world anything.?

McLaughlin offered a similar concern. ?To succeed, intelligence needs some sort of consistency in society on the legitimacy of secrecy,? he said. ?That has broken down somewhere in society.

But Downie and Abramson were less concerned that rogue Internet users would reveal dangerous information ?It isn?t my expectation that you would be having that kind of disclosure,? Abramson said. ?They [government leakers] are looking to journalists who have a high level of expertise in these areas.?

Downie agreed, adding ?It?s quite unlikely that any one piece of information like this is going to be leaked from one individual to another individual.?

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