Reporting on National Security in an Age of Terror

September 17, 2007

Reporters, Intelligence Officials Walk Tightrope Between Scoops and Secrets

By Christy Mumford Jerding, editorial director

Panelists:

  • Judge William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and CIA
  • Jamie McIntyre, CNN’s senior Pentagon correspondent
  • Bill Harlow, former CIA spokesman
  • Karen DeYoung, associate editor for The Washington Post
  • Moderator: Shelby Coffey, Freedom Forum senior fellow and Newseum trustee

WASHINGTON – Tensions between the U.S. intelligence community and the reporters who cover it are higher than ever – or about the same as always – depending on whom you ask.

Two former CIA officials and two long-time journalists examined the state of national-security reportage Sept. 17 during a panel discussion titled “Reporting on National Security in an Age of Terror” at the National Press Club. The Newseum and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance co-sponsored the program.

Moderator Shelby Coffey, a Newseum trustee who is a former television news executive and a former top editor at both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, said the fundamental tension between maintaining an open society and protecting critical information from America’s enemies is “an ever-fraught topic. It’s been a source of angst and anxiety from the earliest days of the republic.”

Judge William Webster, a former director of the FBI and CIA, said the angst level seems about the same in today’s post-9/11, Iraq War world as it did when he waded into the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s. “I don’t see much difference between [what’s going on today] and what I experienced,” he said. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung said that “sometimes the feeding frenzy level gets higher, but in general, when anger over a particular story subsides, everybody seems to think that [publishing the story] was probably for the better.”

But CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre disagreed. “Things are much more tense. The stakes are high.”

He pointed to the issue of classified information as particularly sticky. “This used to drive (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld crazy. Why do people (within intelligence) talk to the media? Because the vast majority of classified information is fairly innocuous. … The easy answer is to classify everything, so there’s a long list of absurd examples.”

Because “so many things are classified, it breeds disrespect” on the part of government officials and journalists, he said.

But “obviously some information isn’t so benign,” DeYoung said.

Even when sensitive information gets out, leak investigations are, at best, a “feckless effort,” Webster said. “They’re unsuccessful, time-consuming and divisive.”

Former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the reporter-government relationship isn’t hopeless. “Everyone in the intelligence community would prefer to always say ‘no comment,’ but you come to realize that if you don’t comment, [outside experts] will comment for you. At times you need to defend yourself, or get accurate information out there.”

All the panelists agreed that both sides need to work hard at building solid reporter-source relationships built on honesty and trust. The consequences of not doing so are obvious, Webster said. The testimony of outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is a prime example of “how destructive deflection can be.”

As tough as it can get between reporters and spokespeople, McIntyre said it could be a lot worse.

Government officials “could make the case that what I’m doing is spying,” he said. “They could kick [the media] out of the Pentagon, prosecute every single leak.

“But mostly, cooler heads prevail.”

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