Why Publish Government Secrets?

Washington Post associate editor Robert Kaiser explains the Post's approach to classified information and other government secrets uncovered by its reporters. Among other things, he notes that government officials have a tendency to exaggerate the sensitivity of certain material, as happened in the Pentagon Papers case and the "Ivy Bells" story.

Here is a taste of the article, but those interested in the subject (or prone to comment) should read the whole thing:

The Post's record on stories of this kind is good. I don't know of a single case when the paper had to retract or correct an important story containing classified information. Nor do I know of a case when we compromised a secret government program, or put someone's life in danger, or gave an enemy significant assistance.

These are the criteria we generally use when evaluating a report based on classified information. Editors here spend long hours on these stories. We never rush them into print; our lawyers usually read them along with editors.

We publish news we think is important, which is usually easy to recognize. We always ask the administration of the day to comment on sensitive stories, knowing that we may be inviting efforts to dissuade us from publication. This happened in the case of Priest's story on the secret prisons. The Bush administration asked Leonard Downie Jr., our executive editor, not to mention the names of the countries in which these prisons were located, on grounds that naming them could disrupt important intelligence relationships. He agreed, in part because "naming the countries wasn't necessary for American readers," he said later.

But Downie rejected the suggestion that he kill the story altogether. "It raised important issues for American voters about how their country was treating prisoners, and it raised significant civil liberties issues," he said. Journalists are inclined to publish what we learn -- that's our job.

But we don't assert that the government has no right to keep secrets. On the contrary, we have probably helped the government keep secrets more often than we should have. But we exercise common sense, and seek guidance from knowledgeable people when we're uncertain. We avoid the gratuitous revelation of secrets. If we learn next week that the United States has found Osama bin Laden's hiding place, you are unlikely to read a story about it here before the government takes some action. . . .

Once we understand the need for balance, it follows logically that no single authority should be able to decide what information should reach the public. Some readers ask us why the president's decisions on how best to protect the nation shouldn't govern us, and specifically our choices of what to publish. The answer is that in the American system of checks and balances, the president cannot be allowed to decide what the voters need to know to hold him accountable. A king may have such power, but the elected executive of a republic cannot, or we will have no more republic.

Labeling something "classified" or important to "national security" does not make it so. The government overclassifies with abandon. And the definition of "national security" is elusive. Some politicians act as though revealing any classified information threatens our nation's security, but that seems preposterous.