Even on a beat where by definition sources are loath to talk, an experienced beat reporter can dig up something new to report fairly frequently, and in the age of social media, a drip-drip of new information can actually have more impact than one big story.
What would a secrecy beat reporter write about? For one thing, this is a hugely consequential moment in the history of national security policy, as President Obama continues to grapple with the legacy of President Bush’s war on terror while experimenting with two new forms of combat—drone and cyber warfare—for which he appears to be making up the rules, in secret, as he goes along.
We don’t know the answers to basic questions, such as, regarding drones: What constitutes the enemy? How is targeted killing by drone any different from assassination? What happens when other countries gain the same technology? How many civilians are we killing? And on cyber warfare: When is a cyberattack an act of war? When is it a war crime?
And then there are the structural issues: The extraordinary growth of our bloated national security state is one of the most consequential events in Washington in decades. For instance, more than 4.2 million Americans hold some form of security clearance—that’s more than 1 in 50 between the ages of 18 and 65. “There is an enormous infrastructure that has grown up around national security secrecy,” Aftergood says. “This is a tremendously rich field of inquiry, with lots of room for new talent.”
Another topic that needs to be addressed: The decline of effective Congressional oversight. “What does it tell us that Dianne Feinstein said that the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-page report on interrogation practices is the most important thing it has ever done, and yet it is totally classified?” Aftergood asks. “What steps can be are being taken to try to shake that document loose? Who’s trying to make it public? Who’s trying to stop it from being public? That’s a story I would like to read.”
A secrecy beat reporter could consider overarching issues, such as where and how the government sets the boundary between secrecy and transparency, whether it’s too much on one side or the other, and the possible dangers of being too secretive or too transparent. “The boundary is always interesting, wherever it is,” Aftergood says.
To provide crucial context, our new beat reporters could remind the public of the history of government secrecy, and how often it has been used to cover up embarrassing mistakes and lawbreaking, rather than protect crucial national security information. Indeed, the archetypal example of the government assertion that national security trumps the public’s right to know—the 1953 Supreme Court case that set the precedent for the state secrets privilege—was recently exposed as a lie, one that hid information that would have established the government’s negligence in a plane crash.
More context? Reporters could write about the whistleblowers of the past and the debt our society owes some of them, as the recent Brave New Foundation documentary War on Whistleblowers does so effectively.
They could chronicle the effects of the war on leaks by writing more about people like Thomas Drake, the National Security Agency whistleblower, one of six officials the Obama administration has charged with violating the draconian Espionage Act for leaking information to journalists—more than all previous administrations combined. Prosecutors dropped all 10 of their felony counts days before the trial was to start, leading a federal judge to describe Drake’s four-year persecution by the government as “unconscionable” and going against “the very root of what this country was founded on against general warrants of the British.”
Such work could help launch public discussion about the cost to democracy when secrecy extends beyond operational questions and tradecraft to major policy decisions, and even laws. Reporters could look at bad decisions directly related to lack of information and oversight.
In July of 2010, The Washington Post published Top Secret America, a vast multimedia project two years in the making that remains the most authoritative account of the enormous expansion of the military, intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy after 9/11.
If ever there has been a clarion call for more coverage of the national security state, it was Top Secret America. But that call wasn’t heeded—not even at the Post. “That could have spun off into a continuing beat, and it didn’t, for some reason,” Aftergood says.