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Federal officials and media have Dialogue over secrecy

From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.

From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.

By Jennifer LaFleur

For more than a year, Washington D.C.-area journalists and government intelligence officials have met for informal off-the-record discussions about intelligence issues. Known as “Dialogue,” the group meets every few weeks over dinner at the Metropolitan Club. The meetings have little publicity but they attract officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the Department of Defense, as well as several Washington, D.C.-based journalists.

Initial discussions that lead to the Dialogue meetings began after Congress passed an anti-leak amendment to the 2000 intelligence reauthorization bill. Investigative reporter and National Security Archive founder Scott Armstrong and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith, along with current CIA general counsel Robert McNamara, discussed the anti-leaks legislation in light of the worries of both government and media.

Armstrong lead a push against the legislation, along with several media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill Nov. 4, 2000, the last day the bill could be vetoed before it would become law without his signature.

“We explained that a sweeping act like this would be detrimental to the First Amendment,” said Armstrong, who is now executive director of Information Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes government openness.

“They were complaining that we were doing something to national security so damaging that we needed an official secrets act. We needed to listen to what they thought was so damaging,” Armstrong said.

McNamara was receptive, but the question, Armstrong said, was: “How do you get everybody in the room?”

“Publicly, nobody is going to talk. We needed a cloistered environment,” he said, admitting that such a move was difficult for someone who has pushed against secrecy.

They decided that an ad hoc media group would do the inviting. According to Armstrong, they sought journalists who were “intimately familiar with national security issues.” On the government side, they sought general counsels or high-level officials.

In the end, the group had managers from news organizations and several agency general counsel. Fourteen government officials have participated in the meetings, as well as 12 journalists, four former government officials, and a few staff members from Congressional committees.

A Fall 2002 report on government secrecy outlines some of the key issues that have come from the Dialogue group. The report, “U.S. Government Secrecy and the Current Crackdown on Leaks,” was written by former Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson during his fellowship with the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Nelson also is a founder of the Reporters Committee.

According to the Shorenstein Center report: “The best evidence of positive impact is that members of Attorney General Ashcroft’s task force on leaks consulted with Dialogue participants before drafting his report to Congress of Oct. 30, 2002, which concluded new anti-leaks legislation was not needed at that time, although it recommended that the Administration take steps to crack down on unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

Often the meetings are a tug-of-war between journalists arguing they need to get information out to the public and the government officials saying they need to protect information from disclosure.

“[B]oth sides approach the issue from such different perspectives,” Nelson wrote in his report. “There are instances where the media is irresponsible in using classified information that might endanger national security while the government keeps far too many secrets that have little or nothing to do with national security.”

According to the report, media members at the Dialogue meetings said they have no interest in “disclosing secrets that might compromise national security or in some way endanger lives.”

“What happens is subtle,” Armstrong explained. “Journalists want to maximize the amount of accurate information. Intelligence wants to minimize the most serious damage. If given a choice between a law versus a practical means of avoiding one or two or three things that would be damaging, they would choose the latter.”

Often intelligence officials’ concerns are seemingly minor things such as the date or time that something happened or the fact that it came from an intercept. Much of their difficulties relate to how journalists process raw intelligence.

Armstrong outlined an example: “If you say [in a story] that the U.S. government learned through an intercept that senior al-Qaida in Iran were communicating with colleagues on the Pakistan-Afghanistan boarder about bin Laden, therefore intelligence believes bin Laden is still alive, that tells al-Qaida that their method is being compromised and they’ll stop doing it. The government loses all that information.”

Intelligence doesn’t like it, but if the reporter breaks the event into two stories — one that al-Qaida are working in Iran and one that discussions about bin Laden’s health occurred — the information still gets out to the public without mentioning the intercept, Armstrong said.

“Out of that kind of discussion, the premise developed that from the point of view of journalists, we would like the U.S. government to have the most accurate information it can,” Armstrong said. “Assuming it’s lawful, we want them to have it and analyze it. We don’t want to constrict them, but we also want the public to have information.”

Armstrong compared the situation to one closer to home with reporters: confidential sources.

“You don’t want to put your confidential source’s name in the paper and lose your source,” he said.

During early Dialogue meetings, intelligence officials claimed that reporters could not keep secrets, Armstrong said. “We keep secrets at least as well if not better than they do. That was a very sobering thing for them to think about.”

“When it’s not clear what is secret, that’s when you start getting leaks that are damaging,” Armstrong said.

But both media and government members say the meetings provide a good learning experience, according to Nelson’s report.

“The press has come to be aware that there are a few items of highly sensitive information that need to be dealt with great discretion,” Armstrong said. “You can’t put raw intelligence in the paper without consultation. There are no rules, but there are practices. It’s not inappropriate to be calling the CIA and say: ‘I’m gonna say X.’ You’re giving them that opportunity.”

On the other side, they now realize they have a problem, Armstrong said. “With overclassification, there is great difficulty controlling leaks or trying to get more information out there and hope that the leaks are easier to deal with.”

The group continues to meet regularly, according to Armstrong.

The next step is to prepare a training program for newsrooms to explain the situation.

“We want to do it so people can make the judgments,” Armstrong said. “There aren’t that many reporters involved [with Dialogue]. And it’s the stuff that happens at midnight. We want people to recognize things that might be sensitive and think through the consequences. Almost all these things are really just editing issues.”