Despite the recent blockbuster leaks about spying on the phone records of millions of Americans, and President Obama's stated willingness to discuss the issues they raise, a front-page New York Times article on June 10 asserted that "legal and political obstacles" make a vigorous public debate about surveillance and civil liberties highly unlikely.
Scott Shane and Jonathan Weisman of the Times made a solid case that neither the executive nor legislative branches -- and neither Democratic nor Republican leaders -- show real interest in disclosing anything more about the programs. As for the president, they noted that his record on national security disclosures belies any commitment to transparency.
But the Times story disregarded another possible influence: The media itself.
And to some observers, that looked like capitulation: "For the paper of record to say that was sort of telegraphing that this whole thing is going to go away," says Josh Meyer, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who helps direct the National Security Journalism Initiative at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
The Times's omission has some historical context. It's hardly been a secret among national security reporters and civil libertarians that the sort of intelligence activity we're hearing about via the leaks was long part of the Bush-Cheney surveillance regime, and that the Obama administration picked up the ball and ran with it. The Washington press corps just no longer considered such activities newsworthy -- at least in part for some of the same reasons as the politicians, including the profound fear of terrorism in the years after September 11, 2001.
At the same time, President Obama's unprecedented war on leaks has made new sources of information even harder to come by. As Times executive editor Jill Abramson told the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors last year: "Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades tell me that the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge."
But that doesn't mean we should be reconciled to the situation. If the extraordinary secrecy that has spread throughout our government since 9/11 is what makes it difficult to hold a public debate on an issue as central as government surveillance of its citizenry, then the media's role should be to push back against that secrecy. And the media's most powerful weapon is not editorials that few people read or appeals to sympathy that few people have.
Our most powerful weapon is reporters. Even in this day of fragmented audiences and decimated newsrooms, major news organizations still have the ability to spark a national conversation around a given issue, by putting experienced, tenacious beat reporters on the story.
So what's needed is a new beat, to cover secrecy itself.
"Too often, the press adopts a passive sort of stance, waiting for others to define the agenda. But it is possible, within the norms of journalism, for reporters and editors to define a beat and run with it," says Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, and writes the essential Secrecy News blog.
When it comes to aggressive reporting about secrecy, Aftergood says, one story could well lead to the next. "I think by creating more channels for information to flow, the information will start to flow. News has a sort of gravitational force, that when you do stories, people will come up to you and say: 'Well, do you know about this?' There's a snowballing effect waiting to happen if someone, or a bunch of someones, will take the first few catalytic steps."
David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for online rights, notes that secrecy comes up as an important issue in any number of beats, and in reaction to specific events, sometimes producing major headlines. But, he says, "I have long thought that transparency as a standalone issue has gotten short shrift. Independent of the specifics of any given issue, there is the overriding issue of informed democratic participation on the part of citizens," Sobel says. "And if there's not sufficient transparency, the public debate on any issue that arises within the government is going to be lacking."
How would a secrecy beat work? For starters, editors would call in some dogged reporters and tell them to start writing about the subject full time, to file as often as possible, to raise key questions -- and to write about those questions even if they don't get answers.
"There needs to be much more reporting on the aspects of the national security apparatus that the government doesn't want us to be talking about," Meyer says.
"What people refuse to disclose" could be as interesting as what they do disclose, says Aftergood, who is a leading critic of overclassification.
Even on a beat where by definition sources are loath to talk, an experienced beat reporter can dig up something new to report fairly frequently, and in the age of social media, a drip-drip of new information can actually have more impact than one big story.
What would a secrecy beat reporter write about? For one thing, this is a hugely consequential moment in the history of national security policy, as President Obama continues to grapple with the legacy of President Bush's war on terror while experimenting with two new forms of combat -- drone and cyber warfare -- for which he appears to be making up the rules, in secret, as he goes along.
We don't know the answers to basic questions, such as, regarding drones: What constitutes the enemy? How is targeted killing by drone any different from assassination? What happens when other countries gain the same technology? How many civilians are we killing? And on cyber warfare: When is a cyberattack an act of war? When is it a war crime?
And then there are the structural issues: The extraordinary growth of our bloated national security state is one of the most consequential events in Washington in decades. For instance, more than 4.2 million Americans hold some form of security clearance -- that's more than 1 in 50 between the ages of 18 and 65. "There is an enormous infrastructure that has grown up around national security secrecy," Aftergood says. "This is a tremendously rich field of inquiry, with lots of room for new talent."
Another topic that needs to be addressed: The decline of effective Congressional oversight. "What does it tell us that Dianne Feinstein said that the Senate intelligence committee's 6,000-page report on interrogation practices is the most important thing it has ever done, and yet it is totally classified?" Aftergood asks. "What steps can be are being taken to try to shake that document loose? Who's trying to make it public? Who's trying to stop it from being public? That's a story I would like to read."
A secrecy beat reporter could consider overarching issues, such as where and how the government sets the boundary between secrecy and transparency, whether it's too much on one side or the other, and the possible dangers of being too secretive or too transparent. "The boundary is always interesting, wherever it is," Aftergood says.
To provide crucial context, our new beat reporters could remind the public of the history of government secrecy, and how often it has been used to cover up embarrassing mistakes and lawbreaking, rather than protect crucial national security information. Indeed, the archetypal example of the government assertion that national security trumps the public's right to know -- the 1953 Supreme Court case that set the precedent for the state secrets privilege -- was recently exposed as a lie, one that hid information that would have established the government's negligence in a plane crash.
More context? Reporters could write about the whistleblowers of the past and the debt our society owes some of them, as the recent Brave New Foundation documentary War on Whistleblowers does so effectively.
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.
Putting reporters on a big story and asking hard questions is well within the remit of the Fourth Estate. In fact, it will remind the public of the essential role we play, because we'll actually be playing it.
Originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review.