Members of the media and the intelligence community gathered in the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum Friday for a series of discussions on the intersection of criminal law, national security and the First Amendment.
The event kicked off with a panel discussion moderated by former Special Assistant to the Attorney General Abbe Lowell that focused on the role of the media in national security issues.
The panel included Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency; Eric Lieberman, general counsel for The Washington Post; Mark Mazzetti, intelligence correspondent for The New York Times; Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior fellow with the Hudson Institute; and Walter Pincus, national security correspondent for The Washington Post.
Drawing on decades of experience and the cases of Scooter Libby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and others, the panelists considered the consequences of publishing leaks of classified information and the affects of over-classification of government documents.
“Over-classification breeds rampant disrespect for the secrecy system,” Schoenfeld said.
The panelists attempted to explain the media’s interest in disseminating government information to the public without knowingly harming national security.
Smith said that journalists are not interested in hurting the U.S. or its allies, but you have to sit down and explain why certain information shouldn’t be released.
Mazetti and Pincus agreed that when it comes to choosing which information should be given to the public, it is best to get everything that applies, engage in a dialogue with the government agency and then allow the newspaper to decide what should be withheld.
Reporters essentially do what the intelligence community does, Pincus said. They build relationships with sources in order to evaluate the quality of their information.
“This is my whole history of not trusting anything that is given to you,” he said.
Concerns about the recent releases of classified information by the website WikiLeaks were also a theme of the day’s talks.
“It’s hard for me to argue that what [Julian Assange] did was not a crime,” Smith said. Assange is the creator of WikiLeaks, the nonprofit that has come under fire for making public documents that reveal the identities of military informants.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, held a luncheon between panel discussions where he offered the perspective of a governmental higher-up. He focused on the “inherent tensions” between the intelligence community and the press, stressing that “everyone has secrets.”
“I know better than most that there is often information that is over-classified or shouldn’t be classified at all,” he said. “The real problem is revealing [military] sources and methods.”
He advised reporters to be careful when applying labels to issues and urged members of the intelligence community to talk to the press.
The second panel was moderated by Baruch Weiss, an attorney and former high-level official with the Department of Homeland Security. The panel, which primarily focused on the issues faced in prosecuting and defending Espionage Act cases, included Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Michael Isikoff, national investigative reporter with NBC News; William Leonard, former director of the Internal Security Oversight Office; and Ken Wainstein, former assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice.
The discussion began by focusing on the problems with the Espionage Act, which, as Weiss explained, is extremely complex and does not distinguish between those who can and cannot have access to classified information.
“I would hate to go up to Congress and mess around with the Espionage Act because I fear what we would end up with,” Dalglish said in response to an inquiry about how to improve the statute.
The conversation switched to a discussion of a federal shield law for journalists and again WikiLeaks took center stage.
“We were making good progress . . . and then we hit WikiLeaks number one,” Dalglish said, referring to the site’s first release of large amounts of classified military information.