God forbid the United States suffer a second terrorist attack on the order of 9/11 — or worse. Should one occur, however, heads will roll, with whatever administration is in office being picked apart by Congress, the media and the public for its failure to protect the country.
Fingers will be pointed at the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department, Justice Department and White House — and perhaps justifiably so. What you will not see, however, are fingers pointed at The New York Times. But it may well be that the Times, the nation’s “paper of record,” will be as culpable as any of those other institutions.
It was the Times that decided to ignore administration pleas and publish, in late 2005, the blockbuster story revealing the Bush administration’s program to track en masse al-Qaida communications. And it was the Times that, about six months later, ran a front-page article detailing how the government was tapping into the international bank-transfer system, enabling it to track terrorist financing and, with it, names and burgeoning plots.
Of course, it will be impossible to prove culpability on the Times’ part should another attack occur. Nevertheless, as Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, has said about the intercept program, “If we had had this program in place [before 9/11], we would have identified some of the al-Qaida operatives in the United States.”
In short, it’s almost certain that, by running the stories it did, the Times — along with its sister journals that rushed to fill in missing parts of the story — made it more likely that Osama bin Laden and company would modify their operational practices and American security would be worse off for it.
But don’t expect the Times to own up to that fact. Editors and reporters have come to believe that the First Amendment makes them sole judge and jury of what secrets can be published. Since the 1970s, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the rise of the superstar investigative reporter, the press has laid claim to an unfettered freedom of action with accountability to no one.
If print media had a sense of irony, it would see that what began as an assault against an imperial presidency has produced an imperial press.
Of course, the media is aided and abetted in breaking the veil of government secrecy by those inside the government willing to leak such information. Famous leakers included Thomas Paine and James Monroe.
And perhaps the most famous leaker of all was Herbert Yardley, the one-time government code-breaker who detailed his prior success in unlocking Japanese ciphers after World War I in a series of magazine articles and then a book. The Japanese then upgraded the security of their systems, leaving us blind to plans for attacking Pearl Harbor.
Yet by all accounts, the problem of leaks has grown considerably in recent years, which, when combined with the press’s own predilection to run a story unless the government can conclusively show that doing so puts lives directly in jeopardy, means we have created a dangerous dynamic.
Allowing the press to use the First Amendment as a get-out-of-jail card is, as this thoughtful book makes clear, a recipe for ensuring that keeping real secrets — necessary secrets — will only grow increasingly difficult.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute. This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.