Ombudsman blog archive
Now comes don't read, don't tell
Published: December 17, 2010
The editorial independence of Stars and Stripes and its readers’ right to news free of censorship are being threatened by an overly broad and misdirected response to the Wikileaks debacle.
Call it don’t read, don’t tell.
Amazingly, the government wants to bar this newspaper’s journalists – along with most federal workers – from reading information already plastered all over the public square.
There is no question that the government failed to protect vital national secrets. But its belated effort to shore up security is wrongly being extended to Stars and Stripes and, ultimately, to its readers.
To my knowledge, this news organization had no role in the Wikileaks affair and has no access to classified files beyond what any other news organization might encounter in the routine of reporting and editing.
Yet the Pentagon entity under whose aegis Stars and Stripes and its journalists operate, Defense Media Activity, recently advised:
“Access to any classified information hosted on non-DoD systems from any government-owned system is expressly prohibited. Additionally, all DMA personnel are reminded that access to classified or sensitive information from any personally owned or publicly available computers also constitutes unauthorized access and is reportable to security personnel.”
I asked if that applied to the journalists at Stars and Stripes. I expected the answer to be no.
To my chagrin, the reply was yes, per provisions and recommendations of a recent White House memo instructing federal agencies on how to tighten data security.
(However, unlike Air Force personnel, Stars and Stripes “journalists may continue to access unclassified media sites such as the Washington Post or New York Times that might contain classified information published in the context of a news report.”)
Putting reporters and editors under strictures intended for keepers of the nation’s secrets contradicts the fundamental purpose of journalism: to seek information, not avoid it.
More pointedly, this action imperils the editorial independence and First Amendment freedoms that Congress demanded of the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes two decades ago and then acted to ensure by authorizing an ombudsman to provide “aggressive and objective oversight.”
Journalists are supposed to report before they write. That means gathering as much information as they can – in breadth and depth – and consulting primary sources whenever feasible.
That might mean an editor clicking on Wikileaks to verify information in a wire story. Or an art director doing a screen grab to illustrate that story. Or a reporter reading a document in full for context in assessing a statement about it.
This newspaper needs to report more, not less.
Yet the government is demanding the opposite – less reporting. That’s enforcing ignorance by design, and that’s not just troubling by journalism standards. It imperils the “free flow of news and information” promised to Stars and Stripes readers.
"If the Department of Defense is serious about keeping Stars and Stripes a uniquely independent concern, and I think the DoD is serious about that, then it should treat the newspaper's journalists as the professionals they are,” said Dave Mazzarella, who preceded me as ombudsman and previously served as editor in chief of Stars and Stripes.
“It does not do so when it impedes them from doing their jobs,” he continued. “Forbidding them to read public domain material – classified or not – is dead wrong."
DoD Directive 5122.11, which governs Stars and Stripes operations, states:
“Editorial policies and practices of the Stars and Stripes shall be in accordance with journalistic standards governing U.S. daily commercial newspapers of the highest quality. … Except as provided in paragraph 4.5, below, the DoD policy for the Stars and Stripes is that there shall be a free flow of news and information to its readership without news management or censorship. The calculated withholding of unfavorable news is prohibited.”
Paragraph 4.5 provides that only certain classified or sensitive information “that is not in the public domain” already can be ordered withheld from publication in Stars and Stripes.
Anyone on the planet with a smartphone has access to the information on the Wikileaks site, on untold mirror sites and on the Web sites, printed pages and broadcasts of mainstream news organizations worldwide. To assert that that does not constitute “public domain” is not tenable.
Directive 5122.11 would seem to agree: “Stars and Stripes editorial procedures shall not prohibit publishing news of independent investigations furnished by commercial media and, therefore, in the public domain.” [emphasis added]
And yet …
“It is a well-established principle in law that unauthorized publication of classified materials in commercial news media outlets does not make the information unclassified,” the DMA said in legal memo written in response to my query and based on guidance from on high. “It remains classified, and is not ‘public domain information.’”
I am no lawyer, but even if secrets in wide circulation remain “classified” by legal definition, it simply cannot be held that information disseminated on a global scale a la Wikileaks is somehow not in the “public domain.” That defies reality.
Many Stars and Stripes readers may disagree because they see Wikileaks as an assault on the country they have sworn their lives to defend. I understand and respect those feelings.
But even the most ardent patriots must feel a chill in their spines when they hear government tell anyone not to look at what is already out there – in this case, information even the nation’s enemies now possess. Ignorance is not bliss. It is ignorance. And it is dangerous.
“War is based on deception,” the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu is reputed to have said. “Know your enemy and know yourself.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I want to know what my enemy knows – especially about me.
The government needs to strengthen measures to protect national secrets and interests. But forbidding Americans to read what is available to the rest of the world is wrongheaded – especially when that is directed at people whose very work is to keep the rest of us informed.
It’s one thing to try to control what journalists can write. It’s another to say what they can read.
The toothpaste is out of the tube. It can’t be put back. The government should just replace the cap, preserve what’s left and move on.