Freedom of the Press vs. State Secrets

This week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on that topic, and was both informed and amused by the exchanges between Alan Dershowitz and David Sanger, a New York Times investigative reporter on the side of freedom, and Gabriel (no relation) Schoenfeld, of the Hudson Institute, and Michael Chertoff, on the side of secrecy.

The amusing part of the discussion was both sides agreed that the press had the right to disclose some secrets. Schoenfeld said they should not be allowed to divulge "genuine" secrets, while Chertoff was more general, saying that the press had the right to disclose "some" secrets, but not others. Both sides agreed that the debate was really about who would determine what was or was not a "genuine" secret, or who would determine which of the "some" secrets could not be disclosed and which could. The voters at the debate finally voted that the press should have the right to determine disclosure, but by only a 47% to 46% margin, and I admit, it really is a close call.

I did ask one question at the debate, but I carefully kept the question from showing my own preference. I did mention that I had once revealed a state secret, and that our disclosure was challenged in court. I did mention, that the prosecution was politically motivated, see I didn't say how or why. I am taking this occasion to fill in the blanks.

In the late summer of 1980, by which time we all knew that the presidential election depended on whether or not the Americans held hostage in Tehran would be released, a CNN "investigative reporter" obtained a top-secret State Department document revealing that President Carter was, despite his denials, negotiating with the Iranians, through the Hashemi brothers, for their release. We ran the documents past a former "high official" at the State Department, who would "neither confirm nor deny that the documents were genuine." That's really code for, unless you think you're being set up, go ahead and publish. We knew the official was not setting us up. We published.

Then the Hashemi brothers, Cyrus and Jamshid, hit us with a lawsuit alleging that we had defamed them. The suit was brought in federal court in Atlanta before a federal judge known to be close to both President Carter and his Atty. General, Griffin Bell. The judge took the case seriously, and we were up to our neck in lawyers. We attempted to find out more about the secret negotiations, but our reporter was unable to deliver anything new, and since that was before Roger Ailes taught us that you don't have to have new information, all you have to do is keep talking about the information you've already delivered, we were unable to take the story any further.

The lawsuit proceeded very slowly, until the election was held. Then the judge dismissed it as groundless, and we all went home. Even at the time, we knew that the suit was brought to help President Carter and the Democratic Party in the election. What we didn't know, according to allegations by Gary Sick in his book, October Surprise, was that one of his colleagues on the National Securities Council staff, Donald Gregg, was collaborating "with the Reagan-Bush campaign to delay the release of the hostages, with the intent of bringing down the government of which he was a part."

During the debate, David Sanger talked about counter-leaks. Suppose in this instance, that instead of a suit attempting to silence CNN, the White House had leaked to us that the reason they were negotiating with the Iranians was because the Reagan campaign was attempting to convince the Iranians not to release the hostages until after the election. The two sides (both using the Hashemis as middlemen) were bidding against each other in order to win the presidency. That's a story that would've made front pages everywhere. But that's wishful thinking.

Anyway, to answer the questions raised by the debate, ever since the lawsuit, I have suspected the motives of the administration in power whenever it claims that government secrets are sacred. I will admit it's a close call, but I believe that too many documents are designated "top-secret" when they really should be designated "embarrassing."