This article is part of a special Report On the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.
One night during a legal battle over the Pentagon Papers, Max Frankel was suffocating from anger. Mr Frankel, then Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, recalled that he was the only one at the table who actually read the papers during discussions with the newspaper’s legal team. Yet he was stunned when outside lawyers the newspaper hired to defend himself insisted that the journalists had somehow made a mistake by publishing national secrets.
Frankl, who served as the newspaper’s executive editor from 1986 to 1994, recalled last month, “so I gave him a long memo to explain how Washington works.” The memorandum offered a ground truth to the realities of government, journalism and privacy in the nation’s capital. The lawyers were impressed and decided that the judge hearing the dispute could use a similar lesson, so he converted Mr. Frankl’s memorandum into an affidavit and submitted it with a summary of the case. The result was a legal document unlike any other. A closer reading reveals just how much such trade in secrets still haunts Washington today.
In his affidavit, Mr. Frankel casts aside the imagination of a government relying on secrets to bravely protect them against unscrupulous journalists, instead explaining the more complex relationship in which all parties are involved in the information trade. And in the process, they exposed the false outrage of government officials who oppose disclosure of sensitive details when they themselves regularly traffic in them for their own purposes. In that, not much has changed. Hypocrisy is something that has no shortage in the capital.
Fifty years later, it’s still an apt description of how Washington works. The “secret,” as the government describes them, is the coin of the realm. Government officials and journalists deal with them constantly, and aggressive reporting by news outlets is as important as ever to inform the public about how the government is wielding power in its own name.
In some cryptic sentences, Mr Frankel said that everyone in Washington leaks secrets and that for a variety of reasons, many of them are less than benevolent. The same bureaucratic rivalry and political imperatives that came into force in 1971 still apply today. The president is still wooing voters; Armed forces are still in competition for budgetary dollars; And officials still seek to garner support, sabotage opponents or lobby against their superiors – all through strategic leaks.
Mr Frankel’s Washington was more comfortable than it is today, where the president regularly mingled with select journalists and spoke with them without their words. While presidents these days sometimes directly spin journalists without their names attached, they usually leave more serious leaks to others. I’ve covered the last five presidents, and none of them ever stood in a swimming pool next to me, as President Lyndon B. Johnson did with Mr. Frankl, details of the latest conversation with a Russian leader To give.
President Donald J. Trump was an occasional exception. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie found that out in 2018, when Axios’ Jonathan Swann reported that Mr Trump was considering Mr Christie for the White House chief of staff. When Mr. Christie expressed concern about the leak, the president said, “Oh, I did it,” according to “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig. According to the book, Mr. Christie was shocked and thought: “You are leaking yourself? And to think that I have come close to being your Chief of Staff.
It is very rare today to obtain direct notes of a president’s meeting with another foreign leader, but two tapes of Mr Trump’s initial conversations with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia were leaked to the Washington Post in 2017, which sent them online. posted. . Contrary to Mr. Frankel’s example, the revelation here was likely not authorized by Mr. Trump, but disclosed by those who were concerned with the conversation.
The episode angered the president so alertly about future leaks that Russian President Vladimir V. After one of his talks with Putin, Mr Trump demanded that the interpreter hand over the notes of the discussion. Mr Trump authorized the disclosure of his conversations with a foreign leader, a July 2019 telephone call in which he accused the President of Ukraine of “doing us a favor” and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats to investigate. But Mr Trump released it openly, not through leaks, in hopes of proving he did nothing wrong. House Democrats were not convinced and impeached him anyway.
Dean Rusk was neither the first nor the last senior Washington official to message a reporter under the guise of anonymity, which was the exact opposite of what he had said when the cameras were on. In a memorable example, a spokesman for President George W. Bush’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq summed up the disastrous progress of the war to Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post in 2004: “Off the record: Paris is burning. On the record: Iraq Security and stability are returning.” During the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Mr Trump similarly told Bob Woodward that it was “deadly stuff” and in fact “more deadly” than the common flu, as well as telling the public That it was “a little”. Like the regular flu” and will disappear.
The government makes no exceptions to its rules on secrets, but that doesn’t stop some officials from filling in their allies. When the Obama administration was about to launch its raid to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t even tell her husband, the former president, the bill, which has a lot of approval. But at the time, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daly was not so smart. He told Garrett Graff in an oral history published by Politico Magazine in April that when his wife asked why he was so busy, “I took him to the first floor bathroom, turned on the faucet, took him to the shower, shower. Shut the door and whisper in his ear: ‘We’re going to go after Osama bin Laden.'”
In an era of horrific leaks, one area that remains taboo for journalists is reporting information that would clearly put US troops at immediate risk. When some other journalists and I joined the Marine General who commanded the operation towards Baghdad in 2003, we were aware of future military plans, but never published it until an operation took place. did. But sometimes the government insists on protecting military movements long after the fact; Our former New York Times colleague Tim Weiner revealed such an absurdity in 1991 in The Baltimore Sun when he found that one of the files still classified was on World War I military movements in 1917.
Government officials these days are more accustomed to classifying information than they were in Mr. Frankel’s days, no matter how routine or inaccuracy the details may be. There is no perceived cost of overclassification, while officials who fail to mark documents “confidential,” “secret” or “top secret” are accused of being too careless with sensitive information. In 2016, a full accounting was done last year, the government reported 39,240 classification decisions.
“Everyone looking at this issue agrees that governments tend to categorize too much information for too long,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It is the path of least resistance.” Even some of those overseeing agencies relying on secrets think it has gone too far. Last year, General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience, “In many cases in the department, we’re so overclassed that it’s ridiculous, just incredibly ridiculous.”
Journalists today are less respectful of the argument that disclosing sensitive information would affect coalitions, but before publication editors regularly hear government officials say that the disclosure would in some way harm national security. In some cases, they make a persuasive case, and The New York Times and other publications have withheld specific information. When WikiLeaks obtained rims of State Department cables and provided them to The Times, the newspaper did not publish the names of Afghan informers who could be subject to retaliation if they became known about their cooperation with US officials. But most of the time, when officials try to persuade editors not to proceed, what they are trying to avoid is not harm to national security, but personal embarrassment or political trouble, of which It is not the job of any news organization.
In any case, memoirs are still more common today than in the time of Mr. Frankel. Dozens of presidential aides and appointees write books about their time in government, often recounting episodes and conversations behind closed doors in great detail. Many of them undergo a review process whereby the government examines the manuscript for classified information, but interpretation is often quite subjective and even political.
When former National Security Advisor John R. Bolton submitted a memoir in which he heavily criticized Trump, with a career official saying he could not quote the president directly. He omitted the words attributed to the president, but only removed the quotation marks. The book was then approved for publication. Only later did the Trump appointee dismiss the career officer as having no experience in classification and announce that the book actually contains secrets. Nothing was considered other than a tremendous effort. He is now defending in court against the Justice Department’s lawsuit.
Now at that time, many journalists quarrel with the government not with the events of the present time but with the government over the secrets related to the events in the past. In other words, what is at stake is less than the continued security of the country, less than the reputation of the people who once ran it. The New York Times and its journalists have filed 81 federal lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act since 2003, some of them seeking documents about actions and decisions made under the president, who has already left office, Trying to understand, as Mr. Frankl wrote, “the thoughts, debates and calculations of the decision-maker.”
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