Skip Navigation

Embarrassment – Not Security – Drives Government Secrecy

Whereas, in the past, the press served to disseminate information, journalists’ new, vital role is discovery of information.

Cross-posted on The Guardian

American democracy has a secrecy problem. Part of the cure is the discovery and publication of excessive secrets – and, for this, we need a vibrant free press, including online investigative journalism sources and traditional newspapers.

Investigative journalism is vital to democracy – but it is threatened by shifts in technology and economics. Although two grants totaling only $2,500 enabled Seymour Hersh to uncover the My Lai massacre, investigative journalism was and is generally expensive. As Hersh himself later said , “what it takes is time and money”; moreover, he struck out “one time in three.”

According to Alex Jones, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Media, a skilled investigative reporter can cost more than $250,000 a year for only a handful of stories. Even when a news organization is fed hidden information, the legwork required to check it can be extraordinarily expensive. Indeed, before the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published information provided by WikiLeaks, it took a team of 50 nearly four months to analyze the American diplomatic cables and the so-called war logs took a team of 30 around two months.

The way many news organizations now consult with government – despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of the government’s plea for a “prior restraint” in the Pentagon Papers case – before publishing secrets is better for democracy than either suppression or publication without warning. Had the Supreme Court permitted prior restraints, the government would actually be worse off; many stories, like those derived from Chelsea Manning’s disclosures (through WikiLeaks) or then Edward Snowden’s documents, would still get published, but without mitigating discussions beforehand. Such discussions are healthy, but only as long as delays are not lengthy and journalists retain their vigor.

Whereas, in the past, the press served to disseminate information, journalists’ new vital role is discovery of information. And since our government now keeps secret much more information, there is obviously much more to be discovered. As I learned from the Church Committee , too much government information is kept secret, not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.

Nixon White House Chief of Staff HR Haldeman told the president after the publication of the Pentagon Papers that the problem was that: “the implicit infallibility of presidents is badly hurt by this because it shows people do things the president wants even though it is wrong.” Journalist Daniel Ellsberg , who leaked them, emphasized that to defy White House proclamations that they were causing irreparable harm to national security would have been “unthinkable before it happened.”. 

Thomas Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” James Madison argued that America’s “real sovereign” was public opinion, and “circulation of newspapers throughout the entire body of the people” was needed for liberty. The early heads of state lauded the power of the press. 

Today, squeezed by financial pressures on the one side and the administration’s crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers on the other, news outlets engaging in investigative journalism face an uncertain future. Government secrets, on the other hand, are likely to only grow in size and scope. We need a curious press, and a stubborn one – and we need to figure out ways to make sure it stays in the black, or else the government will get away with hiding information the people need to play their role in government by the people