Max Frankel

Washington’s Culture of Secrets, Sources and Leaks

VTR Date: April 13, 2013

Max Frankel discusses state secrets and the future of independent journalism.


GUEST: Max Frankel
AIR DATE: 04/13/2013
VTR: 01/10/2013

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I determined to do this program earlier in the year when I read Scott Shane’s totally intriguing major above-the-fold front page New York Times story headlined “From Spy to Source to Convict”, about a former CIA. officer facing prison for a leak to a reporter.

In it, Shane quoted from newsman Max Frankel’s famous 1971 affidavit on how American reporters and Washington officials actually do exchange secrets.

Then the New York Times Washington Bureau Chief – and my guest today – Max Frankel would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, to be the Times’ Sunday Editor, the Editor of its Editorial Page, and ultimately its Executive Editor.

Of course, when he wrote his now classic affidavit, it was in opposition to the Nixon Administration’s infamous motion for an injunction barring the Times from printing further documents relating to its series on the Vietnam War, the historic “Pentagon Papers”.

As always, Max was direct: “The Government’s unprecedented challenge to the Times” … he wrote … “cannot be understood, or decided, without an appreciation of the manner in which a specialized corps of reporters and a few hundred American officials regularly make use of so-called classified, secret, and top secret information and documentation.

“It is a cooperative,” he wrote, “a cooperative, competitive, antagonistic and arcane relationship…it mystifies even experienced government professionals…including the most astute politicians and attorneys.”

But now I’ve asked my guest himself to read his affidavit’s next four points…concluding, of course, with, quote, “This is why the press has been wisely and correctly called The Fourth Branch of Government”. Max, go ahead, read.

FRANKEL: Well, I said that without the use of secrets there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind that our people take for granted either abroad or in Washington. And there could be no mature system of communication between the government and the people.

That’s one reason why the sudden complaint by one party, namely the government, to these regular dealings struck us as monstrous and hypocritical.

Unless it was essentially meant to be perfunctory for the purpose of retaining some discipline over the Federal bureaucracy.

I know how strange all this must sound I wrote, we have been taught, particularly in the generation of spy scares and cold war to think of secrets as really secrets, varying in their sensitivity, perhaps, but uniformly essential to the private conduct of diplomatic and military affairs. And as detrimental to the national interest if prematurely disclosed.

By the standards of official Washington, government and press alike, this is an antiquated, quaint, romantic view. For practically everything that our government does, plans, thinks, hears and even contemplates in the realms of foreign policy is stamped as secret and treated as secret. And then it’s unraveled by that same government, by the Congress and by the press in one continuing round of professional and social contacts and cooperative and competitive exchanges of information.

The governmental, political and personal interests of the participants are inseparable in this process. Presidents make secret decisions, only to reveal them for the purposes of frightening an adversary nation, wooing a friendly electorate, protecting their own reputations.

The military services conduct secret research in weaponry or to reveal it for the purpose of enhancing their budgets.

Appearing superior or inferior to a foreign army. Gaining the vote of a Congressman or the favor of a contractor.

The Navy uses secret information to run down the weaponry of the Air Force. The Army passes on secret information to prove its superiority to the Marine Corps.

High officials of government reveal secrets in the search for support of their policies or to sabotage the plans and policies of a rival department.

Middle range officials of government reveal secrets so as to attract the attention of their superiors or to lobby against the orders of those superiors.

Though not only … though not the only vehicle for this traffic in secrets, Congress is always eager to provide a forum, the press is probably the most important.

And in the field of foreign affairs, only rarely does our government give full information to the press for the purpose of simply informing the people. For the most part, the press obtains significant information bearing on foreign policy only because it has managed to make itself a party to confidential materials … transmitting these materials from government to other branches of government as well as to the public at large.

And that’s why the press has been wisely and correctly called the Fourth Branch of Government.

HEFFNER: So, does it all mean that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

FRANKEL: Well, it’s frankly shocking that something I wrote forty-some odd years ago should be so highly relevant and, and still quoted now because the process is ill-understood.

People think of secrets, secrets being secret. And worthy of being kept secret. And are alarmed when they learn that people are loosely trafficking in these secrets … in and out of Washington and abroad.

HEFFNER: Yes, but now you’re talking about innocent readers …


HEFFNER: … like myself, you’re not talking about Richard Nixon or Barack Obama.

FRANKEL: No, they know. In fact, they’re among the principal leakers (laughter).

HEFFNER: So, how do you account for this? I mean how do you account for …when I said “the more things change, the more they stay the same” … Nixon …

FRANKEL: Why do they prosecute …

HEFFNER: … or Obama … Yeah.

FRANKEL: … the people who traffic in these … or who occasionally leak secrets? Well … understand that anyone in executive authority wants some discipline with information. You don’t want it prematurely known that you’re thinking of appointing so and so to this or that job, and you certainly don’t want highly classified, important weapons information or strategy in a negotiation prematurely disclosed. So you need some sense of discipline among this vast bureaucracy in, in government.

HEFFNER: The threat of prison?

FRANKEL: And it, and it’s very … the threat of prison when it comes to so-called national security interest is the one thing that they have. Oddly enough, you know, there is no law that governs the whole absurd classification process.

There are millions and millions of new secrets stamped each week in government. And there is no organized legal system by which the people who traffic in this stuff can be held accountable for how they, how they deal with it.

The only law on the books, aside from the Espionage Act, which has been used once or twice in an effort to silence the press or some, some whistle blower … there is only one law, passed in the 1980’s that explicitly forbids the publication of the name of secret agent, of a CIA operative on the ground that disclosure of some of those people would risk their lives.

And that’s the law that’s been invoked in the case that you’re citing … that the Times has been writing about and that occasionally has been used, even though in this case this fellow … Kiriakou who, who is being prosecuted by the Obama Administration, he inadvertently let slip the name of an agent but it was never published.

He’s being prosecuted because he took a position rather publicly against water-boarding and used his CIA credentials and past employment in the government to campaign against his fellow operatives.

And those fellows who, who participated in torture and conducted water boarding are, understandably, sensitive about this former colleague going on the war path against them and they, I think, have encouraged the Justice Department to go after him on the pretext of disclosing the name of an agent. But there’s no law otherwise that could be fairly used.

HEFFNER: Max, you mean then that when I go out to Rutgers to teach my students, I’ve got to believe and I guess to say that there’s really no difference between Nixon and Obama when it comes to these issues?

FRANKEL: It’s worse under Obama, but in fairness to him the, the problem is worse. The Internet has made the dumping of secrets possible.

When we got the Pentagon Papers in Nixon’s case we thought it was a lot. We got about 5,000, 6,000 pages of material that we had to laboriously mimeograph in order to edit it properly and, and grasp what was going on.

More recently in the famous Wikileaks case and this Private Manning, they’re just dumping stuff by, by the millions of words on the Internet. You don’t even need the Xerox machine anymore to, to copy materials and to send them around the world and … so that Osama bin Laden sitting in Pakistan was a faithful reader of a lot of our secrets. And in fact that’s one of the charges being used against this Manning fellow in, in the Army. So as, so that they can invoke the, the Espionage Act because he was helping an enemy.

It, it gets that absurd. But the problem is terrible from the point of view of people sitting inside the government. How do we protect the few really legitimate secrets that we do want to keep and how do we exert some discipline over the bureaucracy and there’s no law with which we can really deal.

And the answer, of course, as the late Senator Moynihan used say is “declassify, open up everything and get rid of this whole concept of, of secret, top secret and even above that … Q clearance for so-called nuclear secrets”. And then find out the few precious, really important secrets that are not, that are not secret because you’re embarrassed to have the public read what’s happened, or because you’ve screwed up and you don’t want the public to know that you’ve screwed up.

But really legitimate secrets that can be defended by a board and put a date on when they will cease to be secret, unless somebody comes and appeals the matter, etc. Unless they revolutionize the whole process, we’ll never have a rational system.

HEFFNER: You say “unless” … and let ask you …

FRANKEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … will we ever?

FRANKEL: I don’t think so. There’s no sign that, that anyone truly sensitive to the, to the nature of the problem and truly committed to informing the public and truly desirous of not covering their rear ends, but really just protecting the handful of few legitimate secrets that a government should have … there is no one who’s going take the time and have the credibility to re-organize the whole system and get the support of either a sitting President or the Congress to …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “have the credibility”? Not from a newsman’s point of view, or a bureaucrats point of view?

FRANKEL: Well, they’ll never trust Max Frankel or any of my successors who are editors and journalists, to come in and tell them … although when we get secrets … they have to trust us when they start arguing with us … “Please don’t publish this, but don’t publish that” and we listen to them and sometimes we actually accept their arguments.

But most of the time we don’t … so when, when a secret flows away from government, when they lose a secret, they really do have to trust us.

But they would never dare call in a journalist and say … “Rationalize the system for us and tell us what really ought to be secret”.

And nobody in government is willing to, to take that responsibility. It is … when a government official gets a piece of paper and he faces the question of “Is this going to be secret or not?”, he’ll never get in trouble for declaring it … a secret.

He might well get in trouble for letting it loose and letting the public see what’s really going on.

So the system is forever distorted in favor of what it has become … millions and millions and millions of file cabinets full of these so-called secrets and the press and the public is at the mercy of an occasional leak and this process that I described, when for their own reasons officials begin to unravel the secrets.

HEFFNER: Are we better informed today, Max? For that? Or against that? Or with it? Or without it?

FRANKEL: I think we are better informed by the few publications that invest in the talent and the staffs that have the ability to make the contacts and to sift … take the time to delve into important events and to find out what’s really going on and, and how did this happen?

I mean take any situation … how … monitoring what Iran is up to with nuclear weapons … how come some of their leading nuclear scientists have miraculously dropped dead? How come their computers have been gagged and, and failed in this nuclear program?

It doesn’t take much for a reporter to smell a rat. (Cough) But then he has to go out and find out “Well, who’s killing these guys? Is it the Israeli’s, is it we, etc.”

How come … who, who’s sabotaging their computers? Well, you need to go to certain people and ask certain questions and here and there somebody might tell you because he thinks it’s important that the world understand it, or because he wants to defend the policy of his, of his CIA operation. Or whatever reason. Or because he’s against the policy and wants to sabotage the policy. For one reason or another, he’ll begin to inform the reporter and the reporter will have a little bit of information through that contact. Now he has something to trade. Now he has something to invoke with another source, and say, “Look I know all about what you’re doing with the computers. Now, tell me, when’s the last time this was done?” And he begins to trade on this knowledge. And so cumulatively he … cumulatively he builds up a story and sooner or later a story appears in the press (cough) very few publications are left with the size of staff and the expertise in Washington to understand these things.

The few that are there, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post … less so than before, but still active in this … some of the networks occasionally … especially in the Pentagon, ABC does a good job. To that extent we are extremely well informed … in those few quarters.

But are there enough people asking enough questions and making enough contacts and, and making themselves available for the massive leaks from government. I fear not.

HEFFNER: Pretty, pretty unhappy situation. And you’re predicting that it will get worse.

FRANKEL: Yes, but … there’s one thing that’s changed since, since my day and it started in my day … the press in the Cold War was too often complicit rather than challenging of government policy. We too, too quickly assumed that what we were doing is virtuous, what the Soviets were doing is terrible and wrong. And maybe some of that has re-appeared now that we have the, the enemy of, of, of terrorists … nameless and, and a threat that has raised legitimate fears in American society.

But to the extent that, that sophisticated journalists are, are still at work in Washington and abroad … very few abroad … they are most skeptical of government. And, and to that extent I think they’re, they’re serving us extremely well.

HEFFNER: When you say “very few abroad” … are you referring to American journalists abroad?

FRANKEL: Yes. Alas and alack … the villain here is not only the Internet, but the jet plane. It’s made it impossible … (cough) most, most journalistic operations don’t maintain significant foreign staffs anymore.

They figure if there’s an earthquake somewhere we, we’ll just fly people in. Or, or we, we’ll send the anchor man to Afghanistan and he’ll parachute down and have himself photographed in front of the troops while he is somberly announcing the news from there for a night or two.

But how many people are on the ground? How many people are driving around in, in armor plated cars protecting themselves in Iraq or in Afghanistan? How many people have bureaus of the sort it would take to cover a billion and a half people in China? And, and what they represent, either understanding their economy or their culture or their secretive, they’re even more secretive government than ours. Very few organizations left to cover that.

HEFFNER: So what’s the picture that you have to paint for a decade from now?

FRANKEL: Ahh, I, I can’t paint it … I … the whole journalism business is in upheaval as are most American enterprises and ventures. The computer and the Internet and all that the digital revolution represents is, is, is turning every business upside down and there is now no reliable profitable formula for pursuing journalism in a way that is reliably profitable to protect the independence of the journalistic organization.

The New York Times is making a heroic effort to transition from paper to digital. But the advertising is bleeding out of the paper edition and the amount that’s flowing in to the Internet is not compensating, therefore they’re reaching out and charging the readers a lot more.

Today, the readers, I think account for about 55% of the revenue that The New York Times is receiving. They used to represent about 20%, compared to the advertisers. There’s an enormous shift. Well, how much longer will people be willing to pay for the kind of information that the Times supplies?

And I don’t mean to single out the Times, the question is how many other enterprises will find a formula by which they can sustain themselves? And without profit they’ll either have to go running hat in hand, the way, say public radio does and, and beg the readers to make voluntary contributions or they will have to rely on money bags … a Soros here, a Bloomberg there who’s willing to lose some money to have fun with an organization.

But none of those are formulas for what I would call true independence for journalistic pursuit. We have to find new economic models and when you say “ten years”, I think somebody will find one, or more than one … they will be found … but I can’t now predict what form they will take.

HEFFNER: When you say “economic models” you’re referring to “for profit” models.

FRANKEL: Yes. Although, you know, the New York Times for many of its years got along with a very minimal profit. It had a … fortunately it had a family that was committed to a, a … in effect a public service. But yes, they had no private fortune to fall back on the way a Bloomberg or, or even a Murdoch has … he’s got his films and other and television to support the Wall Street Journal. The Times was uniquely a family enterprise and they felt that they had to make a profit in order to be able to preserve their independence from government.

There would be no Pentagon Papers or any of the kind of coverage you talked about last … in, in this most recent case, if they weren’t financially independent and if the support of the readers were not broad enough so that no single ideology or ethnic value or whatever could shape the nature of the enterprise.

HEFFNER: So, why aren’t you willing to shrug your shoulders and say “the game is over”, because you’re clearly not.

FRANKEL: No. I don’t think the game is over. Well, I’ll tell you … I, I, I was … a stupid faith. One hundred and fifty years ago, nobody sat down and said, “If I get Macy’s and Gimbel’s to give me what I would rudely have called their “girdle” ads, then I can send a correspondent to Cambodia. That was the nature of the business of The New York Times.

It took the department stores of New York and somehow, because they had a sale on this and a sale on that and they bought pages and pages of advertising, they built up a staff that earned credibility and that put out a, a centrist and independent and, and courageous newspaper that progressively got better and better and better and better in, in journalistic terms.

Nobody sat down an invented that system. It happened. Or back in Benjamin Franklin’s day when the, the press was created by the fact that … he was a printer like so many other people in Boston and, and Virginia … the government had to place ads, notices, legal notices for judicial purposes … to settle suits and arguments.

And the printers who got a’hold of that government advertising turned it into newspapers and then became independent commentators on a political scene. Nobody sat down and invented that structure of, of independent business.

So I have blind faith that some how, somewhere journalism will, will find a new way of supporting its own independence and courage.

HEFFNER: Even in the midst of all the so-called “new journalism”?

FRANKEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. The, the more the merrier. The very fact that we can all talk back, that we can look up anything on Google … the very fact that information has … is being multiplied daily to a factor of millions is, is … means that the information business is, is prospering and it has to find legs with which to then sustain itself. And I think it will do so.

HEFFNER: Max Frankel, we have 20 seconds left … just enough for me to thank you for your optimism and your expertise and make sure that you come back another time.

FRANKEL: Be delighted.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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