Secrets, Leaks And Access

As observers, friendly and otherwise, sift through the 91,000 Afghan war documents released by WikiLeaks, host Guy Raz sifts through the debate over leaks and secrecy. He talks with Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief, who still fumes about what he says was a leak that cut off contact with Osama bin Laden. Raz also speaks with former Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre and Associated Press editor Ted Bridis about the wire service's investigation of Freedom of Information delays in the Department of Homeland Security.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Secrets, leaks and access - all topics at the heart of a data dump this past week of 91,000 pages of field reports from Afghanistan. In a few moments, we'll hear from a former Pentagon reporter about how he used to handle leaks and from another one who explains why it's so hard to get information from the government to official channels.

But first, the story. In 1998, the CIA managed to tap into a pretty important phone line.

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Former Counterterrorism Chief): We were listening to Osama bin Laden's use of the satellite phone.

RAZ: Richard Clarke was a top White House counterterrorism adviser at the time.

Mr. CLARKE: We were learning who he was going to meet, where he was sending people, where there were potential attacks going to occur, all very valuable information. And, of course, because he was using the phone, we could figure out where he was at the time.

RAZ: But in late August, those calls stopped, the phone line went dead. Now, there's some dispute as to why that happened. Clarke and others in the intelligence world think it's because of a story that ran in The Washington Times on August 21st, a story that, in passing, mentioned bin Laden used a satellite phone. And the day that story came out, Clarke was at the White House.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, our hope was that they hadn't read or that no one had passed that information on to bin Laden. So we waited to see if he would come back up on the net. And, of course, he never did.

RAZ: It turns out there were several references to bin Laden using a satellite phone in the press long before that. Clarke believes that information was leaked to reporters.

Mr. CLARKE: My reaction was rage. And this was going to cost lives. And I think it probably did cost lives.

RAZ: However the information got out, it became an article of faith in the intelligence community that it was leaked and that that leak, if it was a leak, was damaging.

Now, if you've been following the WikiLeaks story, you'll - have heard two types of reactions from the government. The first that it will endanger lives, the second that those 91,000 pages don't reveal anything new. What is true is that it's the largest document leak since the Pentagon papers were given to The New York Times and The Washington Post back in 1971.

Documents, as you'll hear, that weren't regarded as particularly regulatory when they were published. Here are a few editorials from back then.

Unidentified Man #1: Los Angeles Times June 17, 1971. To the first, what the document show, the answer is that they show not much that is totally astonishing.

Unidentified Woman #1: The documents are past history. They reveal old arguments, not present intentions or future operations.

Christian Science Monitor, June 17, 1971. In our view, the materials themselves as thus far seen do little to affect basic national decisions let to be made about Vietnam.

Unidentified Man #1: And/or in that sense, largely of historic interest.

RAZ: The Pentagon papers were, in fact, much, much more significant. It just took time to absorb them. Now part of the reason so few people trust the mainstream media is because for so long, it's been the traditional reporters who've served as the gatekeepers, sometimes perhaps revealing too much information, sometimes not enough.

Jamie McIntyre was on the receiving end of plenty of leaks when he covered the Pentagon for CNN. He now has a blog. And on it, he calls WikiLeaks infoterrorists.

Mr. JAMIE McINTYRE (Blogger, LineofDeparture.com; Former Senior Pentagon Correspondent, CNN): I'm troubled by the sort of scope of the leak in the sense that there's nothing that the government is going to be able to keep private if we're living in a world where anything like this can leak and where, you know, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents are available not just to news organizations that are weighing them for news value and not just academics who might be putting together history, but anyone in the entire world, including many people around the world who don't wish the United States well.

RAZ: Jamie, when you covered national security for CNN and you were handed leaks, I mean, how would you deal with them? How would you handle them? And how would you have handled this leak if you were handed this information by WikiLeaks?

Mr. McINTYRE: Well, obviously, if I had been the recipient of these documents, I would have taken them. Then, you know, as I think probably went on at The New York Times and The Guardian and (unintelligible) all the people who had these documents, then there's a process where you sift through them. You try to figure out what's newsworthy, what you can report, what you should report, what maybe you shouldn't report.

And it goes through that filter of mainstream news organization that feels the responsibility not only to accuracy, but also to make sure that people aren't, you know, killed because of your reporting.

RAZ: Was there a case when you were reporting from the Pentagon where you were handed a leak and you didn't go with it for a specific reason?

Mr. McINTYRE: Not so much a leak in the sense that somebody handed me a document that we didn't report. But there were many times when we discovered details of military operations that we thought might possibly be sensitive. In all those cases, we went to the Pentagon and asked them for their advice. We didn't promise that we wouldn't report something, we just said you tell us whether we should. In every case, the Pentagon said don't report it.

RAZ: In every case, of course.

Mr. McINTYRE: In every case, they never said, oh, just go with the...

RAZ: Oh, yeah, that's fine, (unintelligible).

Mr. McINTYRE: And in every case, by the way, we sat on the story. And in every case, we just watch while somebody else reported it first.

RAZ: Right. And I'm wondering why the public should then trust reporters who make those decisions, right? I mean, who decide to take the advice of the Pentagon.

Mr. McINTYRE: Well, you know, we have to make those decisions with incomplete information. You can't always know what the consequences of reporting are going to be. And by the same token, the government doesn't always know. So they want to be very conservative. They're always going to tell you don't report it.

You know, and I think there are some legitimate secrets that ought to be kept secret at least for a time. The process we have now is that all of these documents are government documents. They're all kept in the archives and they're saved, and eventually historians can go back and look at them.

And no - does the government declassify documents at the rate they should? Are they as responsive to freedom of information requests as they should be? No, they're not. Do they slow roll you on your freedom of information requests hoping you'll just go away? Yes, they do.

RAZ: That's Jamie McIntyre, former Pentagon correspondent for CNN. He now blogs on the military and the media at the lineofdeparture.com.

Jamie, thanks so much.

Mr. McINTYRE: Thank you.

RAZ: Now one of the reasons reporters like leaks, especially if they're documents, is that getting them through official channels can take months, even years.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, any person can request emails, memos, phone records and so on from any government agency. And, in theory, that material should be released promptly.

But a recent investigation by the Associated Press found that that was not the case at the Department of Homeland Security.

Ted Bridis was the lead editor.

Mr. TED BRIDIS (Editor, Associated Press): We wanted to find out why it was taking so long and why it was such a frustrating experience to try to extract information under the Freedom of Information Act from the Department of Homeland Security.

RAZ: You had tried to get information before?

Mr. BRIDIS: Many times.

RAZ: And it was - you were just hitting walls each time.

Mr. BRIDIS: We were oftentimes blocked entirely. Or oftentimes, when we did get records, they were fully and wholly censored. We were hitting stonewalls on every front, basically. We had more legal appeals through our legal office with Homeland Security than any other federal agency.

RAZ: So you guys suspected that there was some kind of problem and you wanted to find out why it was taking so long and you basically put in a request saying we want to see documents explaining why it's taking so long to get the documents we're looking for.

Mr. BRIDIS: We asked for documents and records about the process, the FOIA process itself. We, through some reporting, we had identified about 10 people that we thought were involved in this. And we ask for their internal emails related to their vetting of FOIA requests.

RAZ: And what did you find when you got them?

Mr. BRIDIS: We found that shortly after President Obama took office, the department had instituted a highly unusual policy that is unprecedented at other federal agencies in which many hundreds of FOIA requests that had been submitted by members of the media, citizens, advocacy groups, members of Congress were being vetted by political staff who didn't know anything about the Freedom of Information Act.

They were allowing the political staff to govern the release of the information. Nothing could be released until the political advisers agree that it was okay to send it out the door.

RAZ: Normally, this is done by career civil servants?

Mr. BRIDIS: That's right. Career staff who are very trained in what can be a very complicated statute. Other agencies will tip off career staff or give them a heads up that information is about to be released and this was much more than that.

RAZ: So this effectively became a politicized process?

Mr. BRIDIS: That's right. I mean, either the political staff, the senior staff in Secretary Napolitano's office were dictating which releases could be disclosed to the public and to the media and to the members of Congress, frankly, and when they could be disclosed.

RAZ: But you're saying that they vetted the people who are making the requests. They were looking at the backgrounds of those people?

Mr. BRIDIS: The documents that we got described in remarkable detail a process by which the FOIA staff, the career staff at the Department of Homeland Security were instructed to provide, along with a synopsis of the request for information, detailed information about where the person lived, who it was, was it a reporter, was it not, was it an advocacy organization, what was the interest of the advocacy organization. All of this is highly, highly unusual under the act.

RAZ: Normally, they're just supposed to treat it as an anonymous request and hand over the information?

Mr. BRIDIS: You know, you're supposed to provide a name and an address of where to send the documents. You don't even have to be a citizen of the U.S. You know, the law is supposed to be a very apolitical tool.

RAZ: Is the Department of Homeland Security still vetting requests as far as you know?

Mr. BRIDIS: They are not. They changed their policy about the same time they turned over 995 pages of internal emails that sort of disclosed information about this review process. Now, the political staff, they get three days notice that information is going out the door to the AP or the Boston Globe or the New York Times, but they can't prevent the release of the information.

RAZ: That's Ted Bridis. He is the head of the investigative unit for the Associated Press here in Washington, D.C.

Ted Bridis, thanks so much.

Mr. BRIDIS: Thank you.

RAZ: And we contacted the Department of Homeland Security for a response. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

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