The Magazine

I’ve Got a Secret

Does the press have an absolute right to declassify?

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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In support of these propositions, Goodale reprises the government’s response to the main leaks cases of the last several years—including, under Bush, the New York Times’s 2005 publication of details of the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) case, and the Valerie Plame-Judith Miller affair; and, under Obama, the government’s pursuit of Bradley Manning and five other leakers.

Unfortunately, Fighting for the Press here turns from engaging personal memoir to unpersuasive polemic. Goodale is a careful lawyer, but in tackling contemporary developments, a variety of deficiencies crop up in his brief. Not only are there significant errors in his telling of the details, but the argument, as a whole, does not add up.

Thus, the AIPAC defendants, to begin with a nontrivial error, were not “paid lobbyists for Israel,” as Goodale states, suggesting thereby that they were agents of a foreign power (which, if true, would have put quite a different legal coloration on their case). Rather, AIPAC is an American lobbying organization. It is also a mighty stretch to cite the case as a component of George W. Bush’s effort to crush the press. The prosecution of the two AIPAC men was launched by career prosecutors in the Justice Department, who worked in tandem with FBI investigators; for the Bush White House, the case was a political embarrassment and certainly not part of any strategy for reining in the media.

By the same token, it is a leap to cite the imprisonment of Times reporter Judith Miller as part of Bush’s supposed war against the press. It was the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, operating independently of the administration—indeed, he was investigating the administration—who asked a federal judge to lock up Judith Miller on contempt charges. The Bush White House had nothing to do with it.

In his treatment of the Obama administration’s “war against the press,” Goodale is similarly unjust. One need not agree with every step Barack Obama has taken to combat leaks—and one can believe that he and his Justice Department have, in some instances, overreached—to see that Goodale goes much further than such reasonable propositions in trying to stuff all the evidence into a box in which it does not fit.

He thus speculates that Obama has been hawkish on secrecy so as “to placate the intelligence community after he declassified the so-called ‘torture memos.’ ” Goodale also suggests that this is all part of a political game played by Obama to give him credibility as a hawk in the face of Republican taunts for being “ ‘soft’ on national security.” At no moment does Goodale pause to consider whether, in the post-9/11 era, the government might need to operate in secret or that the public might be severely harmed by the publication of secrets. 

Obama, burdened with the responsibility of high office, clearly has recognized that reality; Goodale has not. That Richard Nixon poisoned the well is not an excuse for failing to think seriously about the legitimate place of national security secrecy in a democratic society.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law and, most recently, A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account