Press disclosures help more than hurt

Controversial stories often expose government wrongdoing.

Government officials have been highly critical of the media's publication of details about US intelligence activities in the war on terror. The two most recent examples are extensive wiretaps by the National Security Agency and US access to international financial transactions.

President Bush called the disclosures "disgraceful." Rep. Peter King (R) of New York said The New York Times should be prosecuted for treason rather than be awarded a Pulitzer prize for the NSA story. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) of Arizona is asking that the Times's Congressional press credentials be suspended.

The more important of the two stories that caused this hullabaloo is the one about the NSA, because it exposes government wrongdoing. It has been, and continues, wiretapping American citizens without judicial warrants, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, which regulates searches and seizures. The wiretaps are puzzling because courts have generally been forthcoming in issuing warrants. Moreover, the NSA has no hope of reading the billions of conversations that it intercepts. What it may be able to do is find a significant number of telephone calls with the same origin and destination numbers, one of which is in a place where Al Qaeda is active. This would perhaps give it a lead to an agent in the US.

But it should not come as a surprise to Al Qaeda that the NSA is capable of doing this. There may not be much Al Qaeda can do about it; maybe encrypt its communications. Or it can use messengers, but that's laborious, time-consuming, and rife with the risk of interceptions. So where is the harm to the national security?

Similarly, the US has no interest in the daily transfers of trillions of dollars in international money. What the US is interested in, if they can be identified, are the transfers to or from terrorist groups. If identified, the government can then take, or try to take, steps to try to cut off the terrorist money supply. If the terrorists know that we know, then they can take steps to keep us from learning more. They might, for example, switch to the use of couriers. Except for the fact that in this case we are dealing with a much larger database, this is no more than we have been trying to do for years with the drug trade: Take the money out of it. The only questionable point here is why we didn't think of it sooner.

The kind of intelligence that has a serious, valid effect on national security deals with war plans (how will we go about invading Iran, if we do?), weapon systems, what we have learned surreptitiously about other countries, and our analyses of current situations based on that secret intelligence. The media generally is cautious about publicizing such stories, in some cases too cautious.

In 1977, shortly after President Carter took office, The Washington Post learned that King Hussein of Jordan had been on the CIA payroll at $700,000 a year. This was so startling that the Post asked for a meeting with the president to give him a chance to talk the Post out of printing the story. The president received the reporter and Benjamin Bradlee, then executive editor of the Post. In Mr. Bradlee's words, the president then "stunned" the two by saying he had not known about the arrangement with Hussein until that moment. The Post printed the story. It is not known if the arrangement with Hussein continued.

All administrations tend to overclassify information, in terms of volume of documents and the level of classification. This proliferation increases the likelihood of leaks. Not many of these that become public can be demonstrated to harm national security. The stories that upset presidents most are those that expose the government doing something it should not be doing, and they are the ones that most need to be published.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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