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.

And then the whole bizarre story was handed on a platter to Iverach McDonald of The Times. Understanding this requires some knowledge of what happened to that newspaper and its staff during the 1938 appeasement, which was perhaps the worst professional disgrace imposed on journalists writing in English. There are comparisons that the Bush/Blair lecture about appeasement doesn’t draw.

Back in 1938 there was not much sign of Britain’s press undermining national interests—interests as defined by Neville Chamberlain’s government, which fancied that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would become fine international citizens once their territorial ambitions were appeased. Chamberlain’s idea of peace required suppressing ample evidence that Europe’s dictators were violently dangerous, and the press, with certain honorable exceptions, assisted him, agreeing that resistance to Hitler was unthinkable because he possessed, as The Times said, “weapons of mass destruction.” In spite of Chamberlain the people took the national interest—the world’s interest, one might say—into their own hands, and in September 1939 forced a hallucinating government to face the need for war. Seven months later popular pressure led to Chamberlain’s replacement by Winston Churchill.

Though not unique in promoting appeasement, The Times was uniquely deep in the Chamberlain government’s pocket, and for one young foreign correspondent that made a personal ordeal. Iverach McDonald reported the Munich crisis from Prague, among people his editors were sedulously betraying by pushing the British “national interest”—in Chamberlain’s version&mdash requiring Czechoslovakia to concede all Hitler’s territorial demands. To that end, suppressio veri and suggestio falsi were applied with dismal success.

During the war that followed Hitler’s attempted reprise in Poland, McDonald grew close to one of the few Tory leaders who survived the 1930s with a clean name—Anthony Eden, who indeed qualified for admiration. He was a World War I combat veteran and a scholar of Middle Eastern languages; Britain’s youngest foreign secretary, he quit in 1938 over Chamberlain’s ill-judged intrigues with Mussolini. He was a major figure in Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s World War II victory and later a skillful ally when America secured Europe against Soviet military potential. He was a cold warrior, though a temperate one.

That quality evaporated on October 14, 1956, when French emissaries arrived with a proposition mafiosos might have viewed askance. Israel, then a close French ally, was ready to invade Egypt. This was, ostensibly, to be spontaneous action triggered by fears of Egyptian rearmament; actually it would be by arrangement with and aid from France and Britain, who would deal with the ersatz “emergency” of canal nationalization by seizing Suez to “separate the combatants.” Incidentally, they would eliminate Nasser.

Improbabilities abounded. A pliant succession in Cairo was assumed—without specific plans. Absurdly, Israel’s “spontaneous” invasion had to rely on Anglo-French destruction of Egypt’s air force—action the U.S. was somehow to overlook. Then President Eisenhower was expected to accept, via deception, measures that he had rejected in explicit discussion: nothing in his record made that plausible. Still, the scheme had a certain wild purity, a benchmark quality as a test of secrecy and national interest.

Throughout the crisis Eden had given McDonald, now The Times’s head of foreign affairs, special personal briefings. And on October 18, having tied up most of the plot, Eden saw McDonald at 10 Downing Street and revealed all its chief features. He had been depressed to find that the public did not favor a war of choice over a canal that Egypt was discussing at the United Nations&mdash and keeping carefully open. But now the prime minister was relieved: Britain and France would ride out to check Israeli aggression and re-establish peace. If the fraud held good, it would neutralize much opposition, and even generate enthusiasm. He was forewarning The Times so that more fine—if devious—editorial-page rhetoric could be prepared.

Eden was so entranced by his vision of Finest Hour II that he assumed his Times confidants shared it. But by McDonald’s later account the plot struck him as deadlier to Western interests than anything Nasser might concoct. Before asking why the government’s secrets stayed nonetheless intact, let’s see what their exposure (say in a Times story on October 20) would have precipitated:

Overwhelming dissent in Britain and in Australia (the one Commonwealth nation whose government shared Eden’s Nasser-as-Hitler-redux fixation). Opposition to war, serious enough anyway, would have exploded on proof of fraud—reaching France, possibly Israel, let alone Canada, India, and New Zealand. Decisive countermeasures by the U.S., on which Britain relied for oil and financial support. Cancellation of the air strikes—which required surprise—immobilizing Israel’s Sinai expedition. Regime change in Britain: the fall of Eden’s government.

In the certain short term, there could have been no war. However, the campaign did open, with the fraud still intact. It collapsed within six days under pressures of a similar but lesser sort—essentially, Eisenhower, once undeceived, forced the conspirator nations to retreat from Egyptian territory before they could get the canal.

Had the story run in the Times and the war not occurred, some long-term prospects can be projected with decent confidence: Damage to Britain’s standing as a nation of laws would have been minor, not massive; the aborted conspiracy would likely have passed as an aberration. Nasser’s stature would have risen—but not to dangerous altitudes. Iraq’s pro-British leaders might have stabilized themselves. (As it was, Nuri-es-Said’s regime fell in 1958 amid gunfire. Instability, potential or savagely real, has been Iraq’s fate ever since.) The USSR certainly would have had to modify its cold-war brutality. On November 4, 1956, its troops moved against the Hungarian uprising. Its style would have been seriously cramped by a united pressure from Western and neutral nations. But America was embroiled in protecting third-world Egypt from equally ruthless assault by its own close allies, England and France. The Soviet tanks mowed the partisans down without the slightest inhibition.

There’s nothing for the plus side of the national-interest ledger. This is, of course, the Moynihan experience applying powerfully to Britain, and scarcely a helpful case for Bickel. Governments may need secrecy. But overdosing is destructive.

Why didn’t The Times blow the whistle a deluded prime minister pressed to its lips? There is no more remarkable failure in journalistic history. The perfectly informed newspaper was perfectly inactive, when six crisp paragraphs might have averted disaster.

The record is slender but offers useful clues. Sir William Haley wrote no memoirs and never discussed the matter. In his autobiography, A Man Of The Times (1976), McDonald was eloquent on fissures the 1956 war cut into British society, and his sense of doom at its approach—then sidled away from responsibility. “Very few people had any preknowledge of the scheme,” he wrote, as if he had not. But in writing the paper’s official history, Struggles in War and Peace (1984), he had to confront appeasement’s ethical morass, and found he could not pass silently on to Suez. Though terse, his account shows how the secrecy around Eden spread itself to The Times office, circumscribing journalistic action.

McDonald says he and Sir William managed their link with Eden very tightly, and by ill-judgment—he admits—shared little of its product with their colleagues. And as weeks passed they “fell into the way” of keeping Suez out of discussions with those given less confidential access. “Knowledgeable men such as Teddy Hodgkin and Richard Harries … felt themselves excluded,” he says—but these men were authorities on international politics, and celebrated ones in the discreet way British elites then practiced. McDonald concedes that the Suez analysis should have involved such experts. If so, much lethal fantasy would have evaporated.

As it was, on October 18 McDonald could not discuss his fearsome scoop with anyone—Haley being away on a U.S. promotional tour. Eden was furiously bent on security (he even tried to run the three-way plan with nothing on paper), and McDonald feared leakage too much to use telephone or telex. He wrote a complete but quite private record—entirely by hand, because all Times typescripts were routinely archived.

It seems, however, that McDonald did want the story to break, for he told a Downing Street official as shooting started that he had hoped Haley would go to Eden and “warn him off.” But that could only have been done via disclosure, and enough time remained after Haley’s return (October 21) for a competent news team to generate an effective account without quoting Eden. Many clues existed—indeed, The Guardian was assembling them, though lacking knowledge of the far-fetched scheme that made them comprehensible.

Yet the circle of initiates actually contracted as days passed. Haley had talks with Eden from which McDonald found himself excluded. He suggests that Sir William essentially agreed with his own forecast that “doom” would be the gimcrack conspiracy’s outcome. But a letter Haley wrote during the first fighting shows he had conceived a hope of “justification by results.” McDonald clearly accepted the decision for silence that the absurd hope implied.

However it was silence, not cheer-leading. The Times never produced the Churchillian rhetoric Eden wanted, and once U.S. and UN pressure forced a ceasefire (November 6) its editorials turned gloomy. It did give considerable space to denials of collusion by the demoralized conspirators, but on November 20, The Guardian produced the first hard proof that it was all a plot. In January, Eden resigned, a sad remnant of a great statesman.

Two distinguished journalists had made themselves into “morons,” as Daniel Ellsberg puts things in Secrets, his 2002 “memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” Ellsberg used the word when explaining the long years he spent in top-secret Washington, systematically overstating—as he now believes—prospects of success in Vietnam. He argues that practical mental function declines in proportion to the quantity of secrets acquired via official clearances. The recipient finds it hard to respect

anybody who doesn’t have these clearances … you’ll be thinking … ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?’ … And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. [In dealing with anyone] who doesn’t have these clearances … you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know.

And thus the custodian of secrets becomes

something like a moron … incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have … that may be much greater than yours.

Ellsberg’s syndrome afflicted Haley and McDonald classically. And debates on secrecy often assume its sinister glamour and tactical efficacy: certainly it can be put to episodic use in stock markets, used-car trading, or espionage. But its regular product is stupidity. Secret knowledge, said Moynihan, long before the WMD debacle, is often untested knowledge, and intelligence agencies inevitably are storehouses of things which just ain’t so. What, then, is the attraction to governments of secrecy?

Machiavelli is the famous consultant on clandestine arts, and favored apparently by neocons. But his precepts are misleading if separated from his principles—that a state’s fortunes rest on the rationality and constancy of its people, wiser than its leaders and the proper judges of its interests. The Wall Street Journal’s criticism of the Times’s NSA disclosures might imply a right of secrecy inherent to rulers; Machiavelli, however, emphasizes that rulers are only agents for the people. Agents, he assumes, are apt to appropriate the rights of principals. If Sir Anthony Eden, a truly great man, did so, lesser politicians will offend regularly. And this goes far to explain why journalists who accept official estimates of a nation’s interests end up so often wounding it.

Serving Florence unsentimentally as a member of the Ten of War, Machiavelli knew that a city amid enemies cannot distribute totally equal knowledge at every moment. Perfect societies may exclude untruth: in the work of existing ones, secrecy and lies have their place. Alongside his remark that one gross lie will repeatedly deceive individuals who fancy that accepting it offers them sectional advantage, it may seem to endorse mendacity unconfined. But no such advantage exists among the people as a whole—and so corruption may be checked. Machiavelli’s real position is that lies and secrecy must be used with strictest moderation: that abuse makes them habit-forming, and for the addict no safe dose exists.

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Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.