Thousands of journalists withhold a mistakenly released CIA agent name

A recent White House blunder highlights issues of secrecy and public interest

Last Saturday, the White House accidentally revealed the identity of the CIA’s most senior operative in Kabul by accidentally including his name on a list of officials participating in President Obama’s surprise visit to US troops in Afghanistan. Though it was disbursed to more than 6,000 journalists, all indications suggest that every outlet has complied with the government’s request to refrain from publishing the name.

The error was discovered by Washington Post chief White House Correspondent Scott Wilson, who was in the pool—the small, rotating group of journalists that take notes on the president’s movements and shares it with a 6,000-member group to use. Wilson filed his report on Obama’s trip, including the list of participating officials. But after it was already circulating he noticed the operative’s name was on it.

“I was immediately anxious about what had happened,” Wilson said. He asked White House press staff if they intended to include the official’s name and, at first, none of them thought anything was wrong since the military had provided the list specifically for journalists. However, senior government officials soon realized the mistake. Wilson was asked to send another pool report with the operative’s name removed, and pool report recipients were asked not to publish the name in the initial report.

This widespread agreement to the White House request comes in the midst of an ongoing public debate over government secrecy, most recently spurred by Edward Snowden, as to under what conditions news outlets should accept the directive of government officials in withholding classified information. An increasingly vocal group of journalists argue that the government too often overplays its hand in the interest of secrecy. When journalist Michael Kinsley appeared to argue in favor of censorship last week in his New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, it caused a public uproar and prompted a rebuke from the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan.

But in this case, what’s remarkable is that seemingly every news organization agreed that holding back information was the right course of action. Even in the age of Twitter and of diminishing gatekeepers, publishing standards—and, occasionally, standards at all.

Wilson said news organizations weighed security concerns against newsworthiness. “There’s no policy against making public a CIA station chief’s name, but it would have to be, for us, in the context of a story. There would have to be a reason to make the name known,” he said. After all, the US is still at war in Afghanistan, and exposing the man’s name would have been a security risk. “People would have to think long and hard about why you would want to do that,” he said. “There’s no reason to do it. There’s no public value to it.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , , , ,