Why Classified Secrets Should Be Kept From the Public

Gabriel Schoenfeld discusses why some classified information is best kept secret from the public.


Gabriel Schoenfeld is known for his reasoned arguments. It's appropriate that, in addition to his day job as a scholar at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., he's also a chess master. In his latest book, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, Schoenfeld traces the tense history between the news media and the government over disclosures of classified information. He argues that the New York Times should have been prosecuted for publishing classified information in stories exposing the National Security Agency's controversial effort to wiretap without warrants and for another piece about tracking transactions through the international banking linkup known as Swift. Excerpts:

Is it the responsibility of the press to keep the government's secrets?

Along with the public's right to know, there is the public's right not to know. The public has a right, through electing a government, to have some information kept from them and from our enemies. That's why we have secret methods to penetrate enemy communications. When the press publishes those secrets, it tramples on the public's right not to know.

Yet the government frequently uses claims of secrecy to avoid scrutiny and to conceal damaging information.

Sure. Secrecy can facilitate renegade governmental activity, as we saw in Watergate and the Iran-contra affair. It can also be a breeding ground for corruption, like the case of Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who used classified [funding] earmarks to enrich his cronies. But, since 9/11, we've been involved in a war where secrecy is one of the most critical tools of national defense. Yet in our own era, national-security leaking occurs with abandon.

There are very few years in the past century when the country hasn't been involved in a military conflict. When, in your mind, should the press abandon a wartime mentality?

I don't actually have a ready answer, because it's a fluid situation.

Have journalists become less willing to keep the government's secrets?

Journalists have traditionally been much more careful about what they've published. There are many cases of journalists discussing with the government what they should and should not publish in order not to cause damage. I argue that there has been a radicalization of journalists, to the point where there is no longer that type of care and consideration put into decisions about whether or not to publish secret information. Eric Lichtblau, one of the New York Times reporters who wrote the NSA wiretapping story and the Swift banking story, said that one of the reasons he wrote the Swift story was because it "was, above all else, an interesting yarn." That's an incredibly trivial reason to publish a story like this.

I think that you're cherry picking a bit. Lichtblau has gone into more detail than that.

Okay, but it is the phrase "above all else" that is important in this instance. Publishing the Swift story was an example of gross irresponsibility.

To whom are journalists responsible?

That's the point. Journalists are not responsible to the public. They are responsible to their editors, publishers, and so on. And they have incentives, sometimes competitive ones, that are not the same as the public's interests.

Yet the United States has no State Secrets Act to punish disclosures.

We actually do have what amounts to a State Secrets Act. There are three classes of secrets that the Congress has identified as needing special protection: the identity of intelligence agents, the design of nuclear weapons, and the specifics of communications intelligence.

You don't mention the other stories, like the exposure of secret CIA prisons or waterboarding.

There are three types of leaks: inconsequential, seriously damaging, and the grey areas where reasonable people can disagree. I talk about cases in the book, like the Swift banking and NSA cases, because they were seriously damaging. In the case of the CIA prisons story, reasonable people can disagree. I'm less troubled by those stories that could be seen as a public service. I'm not an absolutist on this.

Corrected on : Corrected on 6/28/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Gabriel Schoenfeld's chess ranking. He is a master.