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.
William Arkin, who co-authored the series, thinks that was a mistake. “In the city of Washington, not to have a reporter or a beat that covers secrecy and the intelligence industry and the defense industry in a way beyond the business pages is surprising,” Arkin says. “That’s what runs the city, and it’s really not done.” In fact, he notes: “Within months of Top Secret America, I was fired.” Arkin’s new book, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution, comes out in September.
Dana Priest, the other co-author, still covers national security for the Post. She points out that there was some follow-up—but it was inside the intelligence community. “A year after our stories the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] put out its first comprehensive figures on how many people had [Top Secret] security clearances, and the number was higher than we had calculated,” she wrote in an email.
Priest doesn’t fully support the notion of a new beat, however, noting that the Post “has thought more than once about creating a secrecy beat,” but that she thinks people on existing beats “are more likely to run across good examples.”
She also disputed the pessimism implicit in the Times story about the lack of the surveillance story’s staying power, citing what she called the “compelling counterexample” of news coverage of interrogation techniques, secret prisons, and armed drones. “I and others first wrote about them in 2004. Back then there was barely a peep from Congress or anyone else. The emails were overwhelming hostile. Only the human rights community, other journalists, and some readers thought the topic merited major debate,” Priest wrote. “Then, much to my utter astonishment, all these issues resurfaced two years later (I think as the elections approached and the Democrats became a majority in Congress).”
As Priest acknowledged: “we are still picking over all this.” But, she concluded: “you just never know, and lack of debate is certainly not a reason not to write about something as unconventional and controversial as the broad surveillance capabilities of the USG.”
Sobel says he has heard that some journalists “feel kind of queasy” about writing about secrecy and transparency ” because they feel it’s too much of a self-interested issue for them to cover.” And indeed, after recent revelations about government seizures of journalists’ phone and email records, some Washington reporters ruled out an activist response. ABC News’ White House correspondent Ann Compton told a fellow reporter: “White House briefings are not advocacy sessions. We are there as reporters, to ask about presidential actions and policies not advocate, even for press freedom.”
But coverage is not advocacy, and Sobel notes that the media’s self interest hardly makes it a nonstory. “That just underscores the fact that transparency is a necessary ingredient to having an informed public debate,” he says.