The New York Time's January 6 late edition led off with “From Spy to Source to Convict,” a story by reporter Scott Shane about former-CIA operative John Kiriakou, who Friday will begin to serve a 30-month prison sentence for being “the first current or former CIA officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information to a reporter.” A former case officer who, in 2002, co-led the team credited with capturing the now infamous waterboarding victim Abu Zubaydah of Al-Qaeda, Kiriakou pleaded guilty to “emailing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter,” thereby violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (which, passed in 1982, had been “aimed at radical publications that deliberately sought to out undercover agents,” thereby “exposing their secret work and endangering their lives.”)
I don’t doubt Kirkiakou's remorse; he says he “was simply trying to help a writer find a potential source” and I’ve no reason to question that particularly given his service to his country, which I sincerely appreciate — I hate terrorists. But the law he broke is a law for good reason: in the words of Matthew Flinders, Englishman, politics professor, and author of Defending Politics, there is “a legitimate role for some degree of secrecy” in a democracy.
Even Shane, who’s been covering Kiriakou (sympathetically) and torture (unsympathetically) particularly since 2009 when President Obama declassified the torture memos, admits the grievances of intelligence officials who maintain that leaks like Kiriakou’s have “damaged intelligence operations, endangered American operatives and their informants, and strained relations with allied spy services.” Shouldn’t the government and its agencies be entitled to some privacy in order to better protect our interests? Need we complicate the jobs of agents and analysts whose lives and techniques may be all that stand between us and the wackos of the world?
This goes to the heart of one of Flinders’s key arguments in defense of democracy: that “dense accountability demands can undermine organizational effectiveness and thereby further undermine the public’s confidence in politics to deliver.” (Flinders is as guilty as I am of getting chippy — even personal — on this subject: “It is easy to sit at your desk and mock those who must decide whether to send troops to a war zone, if the risks of a terrorist threat merit the imposition of restrictions on civil liberties, or whether to redistribute resources from the sick to the homeless […] when you yourself have never had to make a major decision, justify it to the public, and then live with the consequences.” Oh snap.)
Many media outlets are prone to sensationalism; they chip away at the average Western man’s diminished sense of self-awareness. They relish in relegating an already intellectually deprived populace to a mob-like state of ignorance. They push the phantom fact that apparently most if not all politicians are untrustworthy and oppressive thieves and connivers. They scrounge to find any vague speck of dirt on a lawmaker to substantiate that notion.
Ultimately, however, it’s often the case that governments by the people and (for the most part) for the people are taking the necessary steps to ensure our safety — even if we haven’t either a clue as to what those steps entail or any claim to any clues to begin with. It’s neither hard to imagine nor unreasonable to argue that there are circumstances under which our ratings-hungry media and the oft-witless general public it leeches would both be better served in the dark.
Examples abound in history and you needn’t look much further than what some of last year’s most popular, critically-acclaimed, and award-winning films are based on. On one hand, you have Ben Affleck’s (sympathy) Golden Globe-winning Argo, (a decent flick) based on the bold rescue of American diplomats by both the CIA and the Canadian government during the Iranian hostage crisis. On the other hand, you of course have Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, (a competent flick) very grittily and intensely based on the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Imagine if some opportunistic, naïvely idealistic journalist or some other careless, inept cretin armed with the internet had happened upon memos detailing the CIA’s investigation of Osama Bin Laden's courier and the compound in Abbottabad. Imagine if he’d stumbled upon the “scoop” behind Operation Neptune Spear right before President Obama could even give it the go-ahead. Imagine if someone had leaked that information to the Pakistanis. Would this manhunt have ended two years ago? (Better yet, would the president have just celebrated his second inauguration?)
In the case of the “Canadian Caper,” imagine if then-Washington correspondent Jean Pelletier of Montreal’s La Presse — who knew about the six American diplomats hiding in Iran — had decided against the virtues of decency and discretion — if he had instead selfishly proceeded to go public with the knowledge of their hiding. Doing that, says Pelletier, “would have been like disclosing the name or address of Anne Frank.”
Unfortunately, not every newsman is this considerate. In Breaking News, a valuable history of the Associated Press’s coverage of war, crime, sports, politics, culture, and natural disasters (and written by a collective of AP reporters), one contributor, reporter Frances R. Mears, tells of a 1933 massacre of lawmen brought about by a rather unthinking AP reporter. After his arrest in Hot Springs, AR, public enemy Frank “Jelly” Nash, a bank and train robber who’d been on the run for almost three years, was supposed to be transported to the Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. The agents responsible for transporting Nash were to take a train from Fort Smith, AR, to Kansas City, where “reinforcements would meet them for the final leg of the trip.” Unfortunately, “an AP reporter happened upon the lawmen as they waited for the train and learned what was happening.”
The story he wrote and wired immediately thereafter included all the details of the agents’ itinerary; it “tipped off the gangsters bent on freeing Nash.” The transport party was ambushed as soon as they arrived in Kansas City’s Union Station, resulting in not only Nash’s death, but the deaths of a “police chief, a federal agent, and two detectives.”
(A more recent example of a much deadlier fiasco resulted under strikingly similar circumstances 60 years later in Waco, TX. I’m of course referring to the horrifying Waco siege, a 50-day stand-off between the FBI and an utterly sickening, heavily and illegally armed group of anti-government, Christian cultists.)
The bottom line is some information deserves to be classified.
Elsewhere in Breaking News where it is concerned with the freedom of information, AP reporter Nancy Benac writes that “resisting all forms of official coercion is no trivial matter if the press is to perform its proper role as the ‘fourth estate’ of government — providing an independent, outside source of the information that is essential to an educated public and therefore to a functioning democracy.” I couldn’t agree more — I love the “fourth estate.". I’m part of it.
That said, as proud Americans who appreciate democracy, the press and the people would do well to remember Benac’s bit about providing what is “essential” to a “functioning democracy” — sometimes what allows democracy to succeed is not full disclosure or full transparency. We can ill-afford to feel so infinitely entitled, to be so uncompromising about accountability when it ultimately compromises a democracy’s ability to function properly — i.e., for the benefit of as many individuals as possible.
I’m sure John Kiriakou appreciates the fourth estate. I’m sure he loves his country, too. Not convicting him, however, would have set a very dangerous precedent for those who may unwittingly end up damaging both if Kiriakou weren’t made a proper example.