When, in mid-2006, a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested that The New York Times’s disclosures about warrant-free National Security Agency surveillance might be treasonous, it cited the constitutional authority Alexander M. Bickel. That was something of a zinger, for Bickel was the Times’s chief counsel in the Pentagon Papers affair. He famously defended that disclosure (of secret—and pessimistic—analyses of the Vietnam War), but later held that government nonetheless has rights to secrecy which news media must respect: “Not everything is fit to print.” The Journal implied that Bickel would have judged the Times’s coverage of the NSA altogether unfit.
The treason charge gets aired whenever government believes secrecy is needed to secure national interests from disaster: national security, a public good, conflicting with the good of democratic discussion. That tension is assumed in every democracy and particularly in America, where tradition has favored disclosure.
The history, however, includes many instances of news media serving official secrecy by intention, corruption, or neglect, in America and elsewhere. Definitions of national interest vary, to be sure; still, suppression is more readily shown to end in catastrophe than in advantage. Secrecy: The American Experience was the last work of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Reviewing the Cold War, he wondered if self-inflicted wounds—enabled by secrecy—perhaps damaged the West more than clandestine Soviet malice ever did.
A strange case in point—an interaction between journalism, secrecy, and national interest—is fifty years old this winter, a case that allows us a historical test. Indeed, anyone testing Bickel’s proposition should start with the Suez War of 1956 and its coverage in The Times of London—an event with parallels in both the war on terror and the 1930s appeasement drama that precipitated World War II, which President Bush and Prime Minister Blair so often urge us to study.
A condensed history: in 1956, The Times was independent and profitable. That October, it acquired comprehensive knowledge of the British government’s plans for going to war with Egypt over the Suez Canal. Those plans were secret and, as we shall see, totally fraudulent. But the editor, Sir William Haley, and his foreign editor, Iverach McDonald, published nothing, because Prime Minister Anthony Eden insisted that Britain’s survival depended on victory. And success, as usual in frauds, was dependent altogether on secrecy.
Secrecy was kept. Ignominious defeat ensued. And Britain survived.
In many histories, the Suez crisis opens with Egyptian nationalization of the canal on July 26, 1956. But as with the recent invasion of Iraq, an agenda pre-existed. Some months earlier Eden had convinced himself that Gamel Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was organizing a titanic conspiracy to deliver the Middle East to communism. British diplomats (later proven correct) thought this delusional, but Guy Mollet’s French Socialists sympathized with Eden. Nasser was behind all their Arab troubles, and felling him in Cairo would, they reasoned, paralyze rebellion in distant Algeria. It was theorizing worthy of neocons storming Baghdad to create a Palestinian democracy amenable to Israeli peace terms.
Though the nationalization did indeed dismay Eden, he saw in it a bonanza—a chance to destroy Nasser. Mendacious camouflage was generated—the notion was put forth that Britain desired only international guarantees for canal traffic, while at the same time the cabinet resolved in secret on regime change. Alarmingly (to Eden), Egypt showed a readiness to negotiate access and compensate Suez shareholders at market prices. Eden concealed or ignored both legal advice that Nasser’s actions were legitimate and estimates that establishing a new Cairo regime would demand military resources of unwelcome size.
Eden thought Nasser was just as lethal as Hitler, but discovered to his dismay that Washington disagreed. Consequently, Eden ended up concealing from Britain’s chief ally, the U.S. and its president, Dwight Eisenhower, his commitment to a Middle Eastern war. This meant, of course, deceiving the public and any inquisitive news media. Most inquisitive was The Guardian, aware that the U.S. State Department distrusted Eden’s intentions. But diligent investigation produced nothing printable.