How would a secrecy beat work? For starters, editors would call in some dogged reporters and tell them to start writing about the subject full time, to file as often as possible, to raise key questions—and to write about those questions even if they don’t get answers.
“There needs to be much more reporting on the aspects of the national security apparatus that the government doesn’t want us to be talking about,” Meyer says.
“What people refuse to disclose” could be as interesting as what they do disclose, says Aftergood, who is a leading critic of overclassification.
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.