As Eric Holder wrings his hands in remorse over his feverish pursuit of Fox News reporter James Rosen’s phone records, it’s worth noting that, when it comes to national security leaks, some things are secret—and should be kept that way—for a reason.
In Rosen’s case, the alarm bells went off not because he reported that North Korea was about to conduct a nuclear-weapons test but because he reported that the CIA learned of this fact from a source inside North Korea. In other words, Rosen revealed that the CIA had a source inside North Korea. It’s unclear whether the source was a human spy or a communications intercept; it’s also irrelevant because, thanks to this story, the source is probably no longer alive or active.
I’m not saying that Rosen should have been treated like a criminal; even Holder is backpedaling from that claim now. But he could have written his story without revealing that nugget about the inside source. The story might have been a little less compelling; his audience might have wondered how he or his official contacts knew that a test was coming. But the U.S. government might also still have a decent intelligence source inside North Korea.
It may seem odd for someone who has been reporting on national security matters for a few decades to say this, but just because the government is doing something in secret—and just because a leaker tells someone like me about it—that doesn’t necessarily mean it should see the light of day. That is especially so if the secret activity in question doesn’t break laws, expose deceit, kill people, violate basic decency, or … (feel free to add to this list).
Serious journalists, even the most doggedly determined ones, have known this for a long time. That also isn’t to say that they should, or do, brood routinely over the consequences of their scoops; but some limits are obvious. For instance, it’s well known that the New York Times and other publications excised the names of certain people from WikiLeaks documents, especially foreign sources and translators, to keep them from being killed by Iraqi or Afghan insurgents.
It might be less well known that reporters have sometimes even refrained from publishing whole stories. Back in 1974, Seymour Hersh, then the Times’ top investigative reporter, learned that the CIA was using the Glomar Explorer, a ship owned by Howard Hughes, to excavate a Soviet nuclear-missile submarine that had sunk in the Pacific Ocean. Hersh had broken some of the biggest stories of the day, including the My Lai massacre, CIA domestic surveillance, and the CIA’s involvement in a coup in Chile.* However, at the request of top officials, Hersh sat on the Glomar Explorer story. He realized that, in this case, secrecy was genuinely in the interests of national security. (The Times published Hersh’s story only after columnist Jack Anderson broke the news. Within days, the ship was surrounded by Soviet trawlers, and the mission was called off. It has never been revealed how much progress, if any, the Explorer had made in pulling up pieces of the Soviet sub.)
My only experience with this dilemma, as a defense reporter for the Boston Globe back in the 1980s, was hypothetical. One day, I received in the mail a manila envelope with no return address. It contained what appeared to be a very highly classified English translation of the Soviet nuclear war plan, complete with a summary of how many missiles and of what type were aimed at targets inside the United States. The document was stamped with the date of just one week earlier. In other words, if this thing was real, it meant that we had a spy deep inside the command of Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces who was feeding us up-to-date information.
That night, I brought the document over to the house of a good friend who worked in the CIA as a Soviet military-affairs analyst. His jaw tightened when he took a look at the thing, but then he relaxed. He told me that one of the classification codes at the top of the document hadn’t been used by the agency for a couple of years. Flipping through its pages, he found a few other mistaken designations as well. He concluded the document wasn’t real. (I’ve never learned who sent it or why.)
The next day I started to wonder what I would have done had the document been real. First, of course, I would have had to discuss it with my bureau chief and probably the paper’s editor; decisions like this are generally not left in the hands of a reporter in his early 30s. Had it been up to me, though, I would have written a story saying that U.S. intelligence officials believe such-and-such about the Soviet Union’s nuclear war plans. I would have summarized the gist of the document—what it indicated about the kinds of targets the Soviets were planning to hit (and not hit), the sequence of the attack, and a few other basic elements. I would not have gone into any details; for instance, I would not have recited how many SS-18 ICBMs were aimed at how many U.S. missile sites or bomber bases. And I certainly would not have said anything about the existence of this document, much less that the CIA had somehow obtained it only a few days earlier.
Some readers might have wondered how the “U.S. intelligence analysts” that I cited knew what I reported they knew. Let them wonder, I would have shrugged. Better to leave them wondering than to blow an amazing intelligence source for the sake of a news story. This is only common sense, even to a young reporter. It should have been common sense to James Rosen, too.
Correction, May 29, 2013: This article originally credited New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh with the scoop on President Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia. William Beecher, also of the New York Times, first reported that story. This example has been removed and replaced with another of Hersh's major scoops. (Return to the corrected sentence.)