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Security, Politics, and the Press

In August of 2004, scandal erupted when the name of a terror suspect currently under investigation was released to the press by someone in the Bush administration, thereby alerting his associates that the feds were onto them and seriously degrading the value of the information gleaned from the investigation. This all happened in the midst of the final months of the presidential campaign and in the midst of carping from the ‘left’ over a recent elevation of the homeland security alert level — information from the investigation was cited as justification for the heightened alert level — and was used by the Democrats as evidence that the President and his staff were more interested in political advantage than in the security of the country.

I was dismayed with the fact that political considerations undermined a terror investigation, but felt that the blame spread well beyond the administration official who leaked the information. I wrote two letters representing two different perspectives on the issue to The Boston Globe. The first was published on 15 August 2004; the other was not published.

10 August 2004

It has been reported that, in an effort to rebut the firestorm of criticism over the latest homeland security alert, someone from the administration released the name of a terror suspect and thereby compromised the effort to make use of his information. Predictably (and correctly) the focus of criticism has now switched from the alert itself to the damage done by releasing the information.

If the naming of Al Quaeda computer operative Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan was done inadvertently or by miscalculation, then it represents something between incompetence and gross negligence, and should be corrected. If it was done purposely for political gain, then it is a minor treason and should be punished.

But if we demand — and we should — that the President have the political courage to take the heat over the terror alert rather than compromise our security to defend himself, we should also demand that his electoral opponent exercise a concomitant restraint. The administration made a particular effort to brief Senator Kerry on the reasons for the alert and he ventured, afterward, that he would not criticize — all of which was properly meant to separate the issue entirely from politics. What Senator Kerry did not do was to rein in his surrogates, and it was they — led by onetime Democratic hopeful Howard Dean — who created the critical climate in which a political defense became necessary.

Under our newly dysfunctional electoral reforms, the candidates and the parties have lost a great deal of control over their own campaigns. Much of the advertising and speechifying are now managed by agenda-driven groups which are not only independent of the candidate’s organization but legally prohibited from any kind of coordination with it. Nonetheless, if Mr. Kerry has seen the evidence and accepted the judgment that an alert is justified, it is his duty not only to say so but to demand that his supporters accept that judgment, and to condemn them if they don’t.

To do otherwise is to do what the critics accuse the President of: to use security threats as mere political fodder, which increases the risk for us all.

10 August 2004

The press has a responsibility to inform the public about what our government is doing and why. To fulfill that responsibility they need information, and the more information they have available the more accurate and truthful — and objective — they can be.

Sometimes, especially when dealing with ongoing activities involving criminality or security or military operations, there are good reasons to keep some information from the public — not because most citizens should not hear it but because “the public” includes those few from whom we truly need to keep it. In those cases the government is in a bind: if they release the information, it compromises their sources and activities; but, if they don’t release information, they must resort to saying, in effect, “Trust Me!” — an attitude the skeptical press (not to mention the political opposition) will rarely tolerate for long.

One way out of that bind is to provide information to reporters on “background” — information that helps them understand what is happening, to verify that the government is being truthful, but which should not be reported. In effect, the government may say to reporters “We will tell you so you don’t need merely to trust us — but don’t tell your readers; ask them to trust you.”

But what happens when that information does not remain “background” but is, instead, reported? That appears to have happened in the case of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan. Now that the name has been reported — and the investigation swirling around him has been compromised as a result — we hear accusations of malfeasance, that the administration should never have released such sensitive information. Perhaps that is so. But what is the alternative? A world in which the government’s only viable option is silence?

And what is the reporters’ and editors’ responsibility in these cases? They want background information to help them know and judge the truth; does that not also give them a responsibility equal to that of the government to protect that information until it is no longer sensitive?

If “background” information about Mr. Khan was reported, perhaps it is because the press failed to fulfill their part of the bargain. Where is the outrage about that?

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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