I was intrigued recently to read a "letter to the editor" in the New York Times signed by 20 former directors and deputy directors of the Central Intelligence Agency. They protested the Times' decision to publish the names of three undercover CIA officers and endanger their lives. (May 12)
Among the writers were some of this country's most dedicated public servants: Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Frank Carlucci, Stansfield Turner, Bob Inman, and David Petraeus.
The letter cited Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, as defending the paper's decision "on the grounds that the benefits of public accountability outweigh the risk to these officers." The writers emphasized that in 1982, Congress "overwhelmingly enacted" the Intelligence Identities Protection Act "precisely to protect the dedicated men and women whose lives would be at risk if their names became widely publicized."
The internet, the writers asserted, made the names of CIA officers cited in the Times story available to every terrorist organization in the world.
Other countries, notably Great Britain and Canada, have some form of official secrets legislation, making it illegal to disseminate information that is considered to be damaging to national security. Canada's Security of Information Act of 1982 gives its government broad authority to prosecute individuals and organizations that pose a threat to the country's security.
In the United States, the constitution's first amendment guarantees freedom of the press from government interference. The Times and other newspapers interpret this to mean their editors are in a better position than Congress or an agency of government to decide what information, if published, would seriously damage national security. Do Times' editors consider the Identities Protection Act unconstitutional, because it prohibits their editors from deciding for themselves whether to "out" these CIA officers?
The CIA episode is but a small piece of a larger national debate on questions of personal freedom and national security. This was highlighted by the Senate's prolonged debate on accepting the House version for renewing the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which authorized the National Security Agency to collect communications Americans have with persons outside the country.
Although the Senate finally passed the House bill, bipartisan opposition to some provisions ensures we will continue to grapple with the issue of personal freedom versus the requirements of national security. The next 9-11 type attack could tip the scale once more in favor of national security needs.
It's instructive to realize that a new generation of children has grown up in America since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and they don't recall the panic that gripped many families in eastern states. America is fortunate that no major attack has happened since; much credit should go to CIA, FBI, NSA professionals and local law enforcement officials, who caught most terrorists before they struck. Will the country be so lucky for another fourteen years?
A full year before political parties nominate presidential candidates and the campaign begins in earnest, national security doesn't rank high as a priority among voters: Polls suggest that workers' low pay and a sluggish economy are more important. Also, deficiencies in the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) will be highlighted this month by the Supreme Court's decision regarding subsidies for states that adopted the law's provisions, but not for states that opted out. Climate change, dramatized by unprecedented flooding in Texas and Oklahoma and prolonged drought in California may also become a major issue.
Nevertheless, personal freedom, including press freedom, will continue to be debated. Americans need to weigh carefully the relationship between their constitutional rights and the urgent need for the best intelligence, which requires secrecy, in order to ensure a continuation of those rights.
File last modified on Monday, 01-JUN-2015 9:54 AM EST