Should The Washington Post have withheld sensitive details about an ISIS bomb plot?
When The Washington Post broke the story this week that President Trump shared highly classified intelligence from a U.S. ally with Russia, not everything the reporters knew made it into print.
Halfway through the story, this paragraph referring to the ISIS plot revealed by Trump appeared: “The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper told viewers Tuesday that his network knew details of the ISIS plot to blow up airliners using laptops since March, but deferred to the administration’s appeals not to name the city that Trump had now revealed to the Russians.
"By reporting the city's name, Trump administration officials insisted, that would tip off American adversaries about sources and methods used to gather the intelligence," Tapper said. “It would get people killed.” Yet the president, he added, had now revealed to Russian adversaries “the same city that CNN was cautioned not to report.”
From the White House to city councils to foreign capitals, government officials routinely pressure journalists not to reveal reporting that may be sensitive, embarrassing or disruptive to military or law enforcement operations, negotiations or diplomacy. “You’ll have blood on your hands,” is the common refrain.
So what’s a newsroom to do under pressure from an official — whether it’s a small-town police chief or the director of the CIA? The advice from top journalists who’ve frequently come under such pressure is to nail down facts and share information that’s in the public interest, but give officials a fair hearing on the consequences of publishing secrets.
Demand evidence that lives would be at risk if the information is made public — whether officials are embarrassed by revelations isn’t your problem — and don’t undermine your credibility and that of the industry by publishing things that aren’t corroborated.
National security and law enforcement reporting are difficult under any circumstances because of the secrecy involved in operations and sources’ insistence on anonymity. And the consequences of acting irresponsibility are enormous.
By the same token, handling sensitive reporting properly is more important than ever now that President Trump has deemed the press “the enemy,” sought to undermine major media outlets as “fake news,” railed against leaks, threatened to end press briefings and urged then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists who publish classified information, according to a New York Times story on a memo Comey wrote after the meeting.
Newsrooms across the country are grappling with new concerns about restrictions to press access, especially those with active Washington bureaus.
At The Washington Post, it was National Editor Scott Wilson who decided — in consultation with his national security editor, deputy national editor and Executive Editor Marty Baron — what to include and exclude from The Post’s scoop on Trump’s Oval Office revelations of sensitive intelligence to the Russian foreign minister.
“Your job is to inform your readers,” Wilson said. “At same time, you don’t want to put people in danger or jeopardize legal operations that are ostensibly protecting the security of the country.”
Wilson and his colleagues determined they could give readers enough context to know why the story mattered without revealing precise details the president had shared — which senior officials warned could expose “sources and methods” of intelligence collection.
The Post reported the intelligence Trump shared was so sensitive that it was restricted to a small number of U.S. officials and wasn’t shared with close allies; that it came from a country that didn’t give permission to share it, and that Trump’s revelation of where it was collected could jeopardize sources within ISIS. Like CNN back in March, The Post didn’t name the city.
After The Post’s story ran, National Security Advisor H.M. McMaster downplayed it, insisting “the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known” and the city “was nothing that you would not know from open source reporting.”
McMaster’s defense of Trump eroded arguments for why The Post shouldn’t publish everything it knows. If what Trump shared with Russia was already “publicly known,” why shouldn’t The Post publish the details? I asked Wilson.
Wilson, a former White House reporter, acknowledged McMaster’s statement “opens the door to us rethinking and discussing what we did withhold and whether or not it conflicts with [Lt.] Gen. McMaster’s statement. I think there’ll be a discussion in the newsroom of whether that’s something we’d reexamine.”
It’s a case-by-case decision, and Wilson said The Post won’t accede to a request to withhold information that could jeopardize operations if there are other overriding considerations, including: “Is something that’s taking place illegal under U.S. or international law? Does it conflict directly with public statements that the government says it is doing?”
One example was The Post’s and The Guardian’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning stories on the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance activities revealed in files obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, stories that ignited a national debate and changes to policy. Another was The Post’s revelation in 2005 — despite pressure from the Bush administration that it would imperil the “war on terror” — that the CIA was secretly shipping terror suspects to overseas prisons known as “black sites."
That reporting led to the end of the practice and earned a Pulitzer Prize for reporter Dana Priest.
Priest told me journalists at every level — from local to national to international — should realize the power and the responsibility of what to publish lies with their newsroom, not with the government, no matter how much the officials may intimidate them.
“It's not a negotiation,” said Priest, a two-time Pulitzer winner who’s also the Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland. Ever since the Supreme Court's 1971 ruling that the government could not restrain The New York Times from publishing the classified Pentagon Papers, “the media has held all the cards. But we also hold much of the responsibility for not damaging national security.”
In her reporting on special operations, black sites, the post-9/11 national security state and other stories, Priest said she and her editors sought to “disclose enough details so a story based largely or exclusively on anonymous sources would seem credible to the readers we were asking to trust us. But we didn't want to disclose so many details that it actually damaged national security” by “putting lives in jeopardy and ruining an important source or a method of collecting critical information.”
The government always claims that revealing classified information impedes intelligence sharing, but Priest said in her experience, that’s “simply not true.”
Pressure on journalists to withhold sensitive information long predates the Trump administration, of course, and it comes from both parties.
As a national security and State Department correspondent in Washington for eight years during the Obama administration, I experienced and observed pressure including government denials that turned out to be false, threats to cut off a reporter’s or news organization’s future access and guilt-trips about dire consequences to lives, privacy or ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
After WikiLeaks’ released hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and Pentagon logs, Obama administration officials tried to persuade journalists that reporting on them would damage national security. Many of the cables were embarrassing to U.S. diplomats — some had to be transferred from their posts — because of their unflattering assessments of foreign leaders.
squelch stories by me and my Bloomberg colleagues and by reporters at The AP, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other organizations, contradicting our reporting or denying stories after they ran, even though they were correct.
Much of the information we got from other countries involved in the talks or from Americans concerned about elements of the deal or who were floating trial balloons to test Congressional and interest groups’ reactions.
Publicizing the information may have been inconvenient for negotiators while bargaining with Iran was ongoing. But Bloomberg editors — like those at every newsroom I know of — determined the information was in the public interest and not a threat to national security.
Naturally there are cases when news organizations decide the public doesn’t need to know specific information at a certain time. When embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for example, journalists including myself agreed not to report on planned operations before they occurred.
Marcus Brauchli, a former top editor of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, recalled a 2009 Afghanistan policy review by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that reporter Bob Woodward obtained before President Obama had read it. Brauchli proposed publishing the full report online. Woodward went back to his sources, and a Sunday morning meeting at the Pentagon was hastily arranged between senior officials and Brauchli, Woodward and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who at the time covered Afghan policy for The Post.
“In other countries where governments can block you or preemptively prevent you from publishing, journalists are more leery” of telling officials when they have explosive or classified information, Brauchli said. But since the Pentagon Papers ruling established that news organizations can’t be restrained from publishing in the U.S., “it always makes sense to go back to the government and to hear from them what their take is.”
It “improves the quality of your reporting” by providing additional context, he said, and at least some of the time, officials may make a compelling case that lives are at risk.
“Endangering national security” is vague concept and not very persuasive, Brauchli said. Journalists should insist that officials offer compelling evidence “that specific information would endanger lives or specific operations.”
With the McChrystal story, Brauchli said The Post held off publishing for a day because of an ongoing operation, and posted the document with a few redactions that the Pentagon persuaded them were necessary to protect lives.
The decision to post the bulk of the Afghan report was an easy one once they’d verified it was authentic and in the public interest to know the Pentagon’s internal assessment of what was then an eight-year war. It’s harder for newsrooms to make that decision when sourcing is shaky or a document is unverified.
Susan Glasser, the former editor of Politico and Foreign Policy, cautioned that now more than ever, reporters must be sure their reporting is solid to avoid being discredited by an administration that is openly antagonistic to the media.
Trump’s White House has “gone to war against the veracity and credibility of the press,” said Glasser, now chief international columnist for Politico Magazine. “From day one, you had [senior Trump advisor Stephen] Bannon and the president himself deeming the press the ‘opposition party.’ I reject that. I think journalists are doing their job without partisanship. But that means you have to be iron-tight in your reporting.”
Legacy news organizations with a tradition of national security reporting have figured out how to engage on this, she said, but there are “a thousand other news organizations who don’t have same editing culture and set of experiences and they publish things because, ‘Why not, it’s out there?’” — an attitude she described as dangerous to the entire industry.
Glasser criticized Buzzfeed’s decision in January to post a widely circulated but unverified dossier by a former British spy containing incendiary allegations against Trump. The man who compiled the dossier later said in a court filing it was “raw intelligence” that “needed to be analyzed and further investigated/verified,” and the patchy nature of the information made it easy to discredit.
Further complicating newsroom decisions on whether to withhold certain information, the president himself is “blowing up these traditions” of closely holding classified information and National Security Advisor McMaster “made a mockery” of The Post’s and CNN’s careful decisions not to name of the city where ISIS intelligence was gathered by effectively saying, “You can guess the city, what’s the big deal, they already knew,” Glasser said.
The consequences of publishing or airing information that truly imperils national security are enormous, however, not only to individual lives, but to the credibility of the press and journalists’ ability to do their jobs under difficult circumstances. While that shouldn’t intimidate editors, it should make us pause to ensure every story is solid.
“The presumption if you’ve nailed your reporting is to publish. We look for ways to put information in the public purview, not take it away, especially at a time of political antagonism,” Glasser said.
When the White House has declared “war on the press, it makes it more important to do what you do responsibly and get facts straight,” she added. “Our mission hasn’t changed. It has become more important.”