Championing access to government information
COMMENTARY | April 18, 2008
Steven Aftergood writes that the direct access to newsworthy documents creates an expectation and a demand for greater availability. Yet most newspapers do not offer such 'tools for citizenship' to the same extent that their business pages offer tools for investing. Why is it that in most papers — and even on their Web sites — it is easier to find the daily batting averages of one's baseball team than the daily voting records of one's congressional delegation?
(The following article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Nieman Reports. Barry Sussman describes highlights of the issue dedicated to investigative reporting here.)
By Steven Aftergood
When the Justice Department announced the indictment in August 2005 of two pro-Israel lobbyists and a Department of Defense analyst for mishandling classified information, the prosecutor, then-U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, solemnly explained that "Those not authorized to receive classified information must resist the temptation to acquire it, no matter what their motivation may be."
I remember being startled by the severity of that statement, particularly since I frequently pursue the temptation that McNulty warned against. In fact, it occurred to me that I had personally committed most of the "overt acts" that were alleged against the defendants: I had asked government officials questions on topics that I knew to be classified; I had occasionally received classified information for which I was not authorized, and I had communicated it to others who were likewise unauthorized.
Of course, inquiring into classified government information and disclosing it is something that many national security reporters and policy analysts do, or try to do, every day. And with a few narrow exceptions—for particularly sensitive types of information—courts have determined that this is not a crime. (To convict the pro-Israeli lobbyists when their case comes to trial this spring, the judge ruled that the prosecution must show that the defendants did more than simply traffic in classified information. They must also have sought to harm the United States or advanced the interests of a foreign power and must knowingly have engaged in criminal activity, among other limiting conditions.)
Use of Classified Information
McNulty’s words are worth pondering because they encapsulate some disturbingly prevalent attitudes towards classified information, the press, and the public. In his view, classified information is assumed to be uniformly sacrosanct and categorically off limits. He does not admit the possibility that information might be classified unnecessarily, or in error, or out of malign self-interest.
But experience—and declassification—teaches otherwise. The universe of classified information includes not only genuine national security secrets, such as confidential intelligence sources or advanced military technologies, but an endless supply of mundane bureaucratic trivia, such as 50-year-old intelligence budget figures, as well as the occasional crime or cover-up.
Nor does McNulty consider that sometimes there might be a public interest in disclosure that outweighs a legitimate security interest in secrecy. Should the press have resisted the temptation to discover that "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees" at Abu Ghraib prison, as the Taguba report revealed in 2004, just because that report and that sentence from it were clearly classified "Secret"?
Remarkably, there is a popular school of thought in support of this point of view, and those who believe this scorn disclosure of any classified information. Former education secretary and conservative commentator William Bennett decried the 2006 award of the Pulitzer Prize to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their coverage of intelligence surveillance activity and to Dana Priest of The Washington Post for her reporting on CIA detention sites abroad.
These reporters, Bennett said, "took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the President. As a result, are they punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win Pulitzer Prizes, they win Pulitzer Prizes. I don’t think what they did was worthy of an award. I think what they did was worthy of jail," he said in April 2006 in a radio broadcast reported by Editor & Publisher.
His words echo the implicit view that classified information is sacrosanct by definition and is not to be disclosed under any circumstances. Bennett adds to this view the flourish that "the wishes of the President" ought to be decisive in the matter.
Yet to reject this view does not mean one is indifferent to national security or blind to the fact that disclosure of some types of classified information can put lives at risk. Just as not all classified information is genuinely sensitive, it might be noted that not all unclassified information is harmless or risk-free. As someone who spends his days gathering government records from obscure places—and publishing them on a Web site operated by the Federation of American Scientists—I frequently find unclassified documents that arguably do not belong in the public domain. I’d include among them instructional manuals prepared by the U.S. government on the following sorts of topics:
- The preparation and use of improvised explosives
- The training of snipers
- The operation of shoulder-fired missiles.
Though I am not in the business of withholding information from the public (it goes against my grain to do so), I have chosen not to republish documents such as these on our Web site.
The Nature of Citizenship
Interwoven into this broader issue seem to be divergent perspectives on the nature of citizenship and, by implication, of journalism. Is a citizen basically a spectator and an object of policies that are authored by professionals? Or can a citizen aspire to be an active participant in the policy process? The passive spectator might easily be satisfied with whatever information authorities decide to disclose and is likely to defer to "the wishes of the President." But the active participant will favor maximum disclosure and view sweeping claims of secrecy with skepticism.
In our time, the activist concept appears to be a minority view, swamped by an insatiable appetite for entertainment and diversion. But some countervailing trends are noteworthy.
From my vantage point—as a close observer of the online dynamic—I notice an increasing public appreciation for direct access to source documents. Many readers don’t merely want to be told what some new official document says, they want to see the document for themselves.
Tens of thousands of readers visit my organization’s Web site daily for this kind of access, and many newspapers have started to offer online access to newsworthy documents to supplement their reporting. Publication of source documents does not obviate the need for reporting, since mere disclosure leaves key questions unasked: Who prepared the document? Why, and to what end? Who dissents from its conclusions? And so on.
But in a virtuous circle, the direct access to such documents creates an expectation and a demand for greater availability. Meanwhile, the still-maturing blogosphere permits new forums for public engagement with national policy—some of them quite sophisticated—and enables active citizens to establish contact with like-minded individuals.
Even with this technology available, I find that most newspapers do not offer such "tools for citizenship" to the same extent that their business pages offer tools for investing, for example, with their detailed daily statistics on the performance of thousands of stocks. In most papers—and even on their Web sites—it is easier to find the daily batting averages of one’s baseball team than the daily voting records of one’s congressional delegation. Why should that be so?
To demand robust access to government information, together with the rights and responsibilities of active citizenship, still involves swimming against the tide. Even so, something pushes many of us to believe the fight is still worth waging.