Official Secrets

Sunday’s Washington Post has a fine piece by former Post managing editor Robert G. Kaiser explaining why papers like the Post publish official secrets despite government assertions that publication may be harmful to national security. Kaiser writes: 

We avoid the gratuitous revelation of secrets. … [but] no single authority should be able to decide what information should reach the public. Some readers ask us why the president’s decisions on how best to protect the nation shouldn’t govern us, and specifically our choices of what to publish. The answer is that in the American system of checks and balances, the president cannot be allowed to decide what the voters need to know to hold him accountable. 

Moreover, Kaiser notes that “labeling something ‘classified’ or important to ‘national security’ does not make it so. The government overclassifies with abandon.” ”Exhibit A” for Kaiser is the historic Pentagon Papers case, in which the Nixon administration, citing (you guessed it) the president’s authority as Commander in Chief, attempted to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified Defense Department history of the Vietnam war leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In a June 14, 1971 oval office meeting with the president, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman discussed whether to file suit (and whether to steal the papers from the Brookings Institution). Haldeman described what he feared the effect of publication would be:

But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing: [unclear] you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the –- the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.  [Emphasis added]. 

That the “implicit infallibility of presidents” is no longer “an accepted thing in America” – that the very phrase now causes any thoughtful American to smirk – is one reason to give thanks that reporters no longer automatically wilt before government claims of secrecy.