No article on a classified program gets published until the responsible officials have been given a fair opportunity to comment. And if they want to argue that publication represents a danger to national security, we put things on hold and give them a respectful hearing. Often, we agree to participate in off-the-record conversations with officials, so they can make their case without fear of spilling more secrets onto our front pages.The two editors -- Dean Baquet and Bill Keller -- rely heavily on the idea that government officials shouldn't have the final say over what gets out and what remains secret. Citizens need to be able to evaluate these officials, who can't be trusted controlling the flow of information. As Baquet and Keller put it: "They want us to protect their secrets, and they want us to trumpet their successes." Government officials are biased toward suppressing things that make them look bad, and the press needs to bring out the full story, so that citizens can exercise the independent judgment that is crucial to democracy.
Finally, we weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public's interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information. We make our best judgment.
But the recently revealed secrets -- about the surveillance of telephone call patterns and financial transactions -- were not cases of government suppressing failures. These ongoing programs were successful, and revealing the secrets impaired the operation of very significant efforts in the war on terrorism. I realize that there are arguments that people need to know about successes that are subject to controversy: the telephone surveillance program is attacked as an illegal invasion of privacy.
Here, Baquet and Keller have written a lengthy defense of their behavior, behavior that they know has been severely criticized, even called "treason." Despite the length, the piece seems padded. Look at that last paragraph in the blockquote above. We judge, we weigh, we make judgments. Essentially, trust us. Trust us, because you shouldn't just trust the government. Agreed, but why should we trust you? We look at what you just did and feel mistrustful. What in these generic remarks cures that mistrust? You tell us you really did think about it. Those who abhor what you did will not feel inspired to trust you when you say this is where we ended up when we really thought deeply about it.
MORE: Here's a related article in tomorrow's NYT, going into the history of publishing government secrets. It quotes Ben Bradlee's memoir:
"Officials often — more often than not, in my experience — use the claim of national security as a smoke screen to cover up their own embarrassment."It's good to remember the problem with trusting the government. It will want to cover up mistakes. But let's also remember that this is not the case with the recent disclosures.
YET MORE: Stephen Bainbridge quotes my post and writes:
Exactly. With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, Baquet and Keller have given us no reason to believe that they exercise their power responsibly. Oh well. Given the trend of market forces, Baquet and Keller will be out of business soon enough. And they'll probably still be wondering why.I just want to say that I love the NYT and hope it solves its business and other problems. I'm not even considering stopping reading it or ending home delivery, which I've taken for decades.