If presidents of both parties have one thing they agree on, it’s that there are lots of things the media and the people don’t need to know, because it would just confuse them. Frequently, administrations find members of Congress, reluctant to look soft on national security, to agree with them.
So it’s helpful to have people such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to point out that even if it’s inconvenient to the government, the American people are entitled to know what’s being done in their name.
Last week, Wyden made this point by putting a hold on an intelligence authorization bill that includes tightened limits on the media and who can talk to them.
The bill, which Wyden cast the only vote against in the Senate Intelligence Committee, would keep retired security employees from working for media for one year, ban most current officials from speaking with the media even on background on nonclassified issues, and empower the heads of intelligence agencies to strip pension benefits from officials they decide have violated the rules — a powerful weapon against whistle-blowers, or public information.
As the American Society of News Editors said (full disclosure: we have an interest in this issue), the two sections “would make it significantly harder for ASNE members to acquire and report important information relating to foreign affairs and national security issues.”
Which can, of course, make government’s life a lot easier.
Or as Wyden said on the floor of the Senate on Nov. 14, “These provisions are all intended to reduce unauthorized disclosures of classified information, but I am concerned that they will lead to less-informed public debate about national security issues, and also undermine the due process rights of intelligence agency employees, without actually enhancing national security.”
It’s too easy — not to mention really convenient — for government officials to decide that the real threat is not the forces who seek to do harm to Americans, but the reporters trying to discover what is really happening.
Vastly increasing the number of people, retired and current security officials, who are prevented from speaking to reporters is less a matter of controlling security than of controlling information, a goal generally less to the benefit of the nation than to the benefit of the government.
“Bills that disrupt the balance between the need for a free press and the public’s right to know, and national security, are bills I’m going to oppose,” Wyden explained. “I’m struck by the number of important foreign policy figures who think this is an inappropriate measure.”
That may be striking, but perhaps not surprising. People who have spent time in foreign policy often come to understand that government can get into more trouble keeping secrets than by having to explain itself.
The Senate leadership could overwhelm Wyden with a supermajority, or it could attempt to deal with his concerns.
It could start by understanding that he’s not the only one who’s concerned.
The Associated Press provided access to this editorial.