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Leaks spark debate among journalists, legislative staff

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU     WASHINGTON, D.C.     Freedom of Information      Mar 19, 2002 

Leaks spark debate among journalists, legislative staff

  • Panelists discussing media disclosure of government information agree that potentially sensitive information leaked to the press should be carefully considered before it is published.

When a government official secretly handed a copy of “The Nuclear Posture Review” to one of its reporters recently, The Los Angeles Times refrained from publishing its detailed account of U.S. nuclear arms strategy for 10 days, giving editors time to assess the ramifications of publication.

Deciding that the public’s right to know outweighed possible effects on national security, The Times ran a story. This anecdote, Doyle McManus said, illustrates the sensitivity and care journalists take when reporting on issues sensitive to national security.

“When a leak occurs, it can be handled in a way that protects the public interest and the government’s interest,” said McManus, Washington bureau chief for The Times .

Rep. Tim Sample, staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he understood why The Times published the story but denounced the leak. He called it “a break down in our security discipline,” blaming a notion he described in federal workers as “if I don’t like something, I’m going to leak it.”

Sample noted that, because there is no threat of prosecution, people are not afraid of providing information to the press.

Comments from McManus and Sample came during a panel discussion on March 15 at the Freedom Forum headquarters in Arlington, Va. Called “Disclosure Denied: Limiting the Damage From Leaks,” the panel also offered opinions on the public’s right to know versus the government’s responsibility to safeguard sensitive information.

Scott Armstrong, executive director of Information Trust, defended The Times’ decision to print the article by defining the reporter’s role on a more general level.

“It’s in our interests as journalists to make sure public officials do a good job,” Armstrong said.

Doyle agreed, saying reporters’ “guiding theology” dictates that revealing information is better than keeping it secret.

In referring to the panel as a whole, Sample said that the “best part of these discussions ” is it’s in the open, leaving no need for anyone to “posture” when giving their opinions.

—  KC

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