This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Blogs of War, 27 December 2013
I was going to try and respond to the recent Associated Press / Washington Post article (authored by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo) related to Robert Levinson and my views on news organizations breaking stories related to American citizens who are being held in captivity with as little condescension as I could possibly muster. The fact that I find myself having to contemplate this scenario at all leaves me severely disappointed. The truth is I have very little to add to that specific story. More over, the release of their article has opened the floodgates to a wash of stories from several other sources
I don’t want to come off sounding like some government crony who is completely anti-media. I believe the media has an incredible amount of power, especially in this current climate of sensitive information leaks and the inevitable post 9/11 – GWOT blowback. The fact that some journalists held their stories for over six years tells me however, they did know this was and is an extremely sensitive subject.
The essence of the debate and my heated response to the Levinson story can be distilled to one point. Robert Levinson is still out there; an American citizen and public servant for what turns out to be three decades. Exposing any info about him for personal gain is reprehensible. This isn’t a scandal; this is a crisis for him and his family. The basis of his employment and trip to Iran can be debated and pushed around the litter-box after he has been freed, but anything short of that is a self-serving, heartless mistake.
That out of the way, I’d also like to add that for once it would be nice to read a story that does not involve the words “speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized…” especially when it relates to matters of National Security (and obviously US citizens being held in captivity overseas).
Can we call agree that journalists are not National Security professionals? I’m not saying they don’t have good contacts, or have a grasp of NatSec and related subject matter. What I am saying is they are not suited to decide what sensitive or classified information should be published for the entire world to read. When publishing stories I highly doubt the first thing out of an editors mouth is “how will this damage US intelligence assets and officers in the field?” or “would posting this get anyone killed?”
I’m not so callus as to say they don’t utter those words at all. Hell, I’ve seen HBO’s The Newsroom, I know there must be heated debates in glass walled offices about all this. After all, TV is like real life, right
So what about those “anonymous senior officials” who so gallantly dish scoops to the media? I suppose I wouldn’t be too popular if I said I’d like to see them uncloaked and held accountable would I? Personally I think anyone who gives classified or sensitive information to the media is just as likely to give it to a foreign intelligence service. And in some cases, its pretty much the same damage done.
I won’t be so dire and drab as to say, “loose lips sink ships” and put a clamp down on anyone talking without offering up an olive branch here. Could it be that the US Government has created this rampant use of “anonymous” conditional sources? If this is the case, I do believe our penchant for over-classification could be the culprit.
Its embarrassing to say, but during my time at the CIA, I’m not sure I ever really understood the how’s and why’s for our classification rules. If I am remembering correctly, we even had to fill in classification markings on inter-office emails. The system was/is bulky and pretty much everything needed to be classified. Obviously I can’t speak to specifics, but I know there were things I classified that did not need it. Somewhere there is likely a Lotus Notes server with gigabytes of classified “Meet at Woodie in 10?” and “Starbucks after the meeting?”…
So if I concede that there is a problem with over-classification in the Government, can we all agree that the news media needs to seriously look in the mirror and figure out whose greater good they are trying to serve with their stories?
Back on topic, Robert Levinson is still being held in captivity. I cannot think of a viable or productive reason for the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, et al to release their stories at this time. No doubt, if any of it were true, there would have been good reason to publish it after Levinson was released. Prior to securing his release it reeks of nothing but self-serving media masturbation. I for one am sick of the rub and tug.