Hogan's Alley

Sunday, January 08, 2006

James Risen On Meet The Press

I'm watching Tim Russert's interview of James Risen, the NY Times writer who first reported the NSA was monitoring calls with overseas persons involved with terrorist activities. He has just published a book, called "State of War" about intelligence operations in the Bush Administration.

Russert questioned him about several revelations he makes in the book, some involving what he concedes may be ongoing intelligence operations and tactics. In each instance he asserts that he has not behaved treasonously because he was reported some form of a screw up or possible violation of law, which the public has an overriding need to know about in a free society.

Most strikingly, when Russert asked him why the NY Times held his story about phone call monitoring for over a year, when the story was complete in October of 2004, he refuses to answer. It is apparently not in the public's interest to understand why the newspaper of record in our society, the apex of our first amendment freedoms, chose to hold a story for, as Russert put it (and Risen didn't disagree), for either political or national security reasons.

This leads me to ask the question: is there any information kept secret by the government that Risen, or the press in general, would think should not be revealed? It seems the answer is no. The only functional test would seem to be whether inside sources, presumably two is the minimum required number, in some way disagree with the policy or practice in question. It is only in such circumstances that reporters are going to be approached by sources. Thus, secrecy will only apply when and if no more than one single person in an agency has any problem with a policy, has no axes to grind based on personal issues or is not seeking self aggrandizement.

Anyone who has worked in any organization will know that there is always some level of griping or disagreement with almost every policy and action of the organization. Therefore, someone will always be wanting to report what they consider mistaken behavior by our government and reporters will believe that displaying possible error to the people is their obligation and calling.

There is no longer such a thing in our society as a government secret. In a recent editorial the NY Times asserted their belief that any reporting of "wistleblower" allegations is a sacred obligation. If I were managing a federal agency, especially in the intelligence area, I would operate as if any secret known to more than a dozen people will become public information and that the concept of illegal release of official secrets no longer exists. The liberal elite in America have now declared the performance of spy work difficult, if not impossible, to do. This at a time when the competent performance of intelligence is already widely regarded as a joke.

If these are the new rules of the game, then the other central players in our public life, including the fourth estate, must all be required to operate in an open and public way. A "no comment" from the press about the details of their operations and choices is no longer acceptable.