In 1998 the United States fired cruise missiles at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan to try to decapitate the group after it bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. The United States knew about bin Laden and the whereabouts of his camps because, according to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, "the National Security Agency had tapped into bin Laden's satellite telephone and kept track of his international conversations."
After the missile strike, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, a prominent newspaper revealed the United States' knowledge about bin Laden's phone. As a result, "al Qaeda's senior leadership ... stopped using [the satellite phones] almost immediately. ... This made it much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conversations." U.S. intelligence lost its most valuable source for tracking the world's most dangerous terrorist.*
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, emphatically could have been prevented if the United States was able to protect classified information. The newspapers' complicity in divulging classified information helped murder some 2,977 people.
I make this point now in response to those who believe the protection of classified information is unjust. There is an anonymous movement now among anarchist hackers to attack government and corporate websites to protest the prosecution of Julian Assange and defend WikiLeaks. Judging from the responses to my last post, in which I advocated the passage of a Secrecy Act, some readers of Foreign Policy would sympathize with the hackers.
The most common argument is that protecting information, and prosecuting offenders, is a violation of free speech. That is simply not true. The Supreme Court has never upheld First Amendment absolutism. There are legal and reasonable restrictions on what people are allowed to say, print, or broadcast. It is illegal to incite a mob to violence. It is illegal to libel others. It is illegal to make false claims in advertising about a product. It is illegal to utter profanity on broadcast television or radio. And it is, in fact, illegal to reveal information that would cause immediate harm to U.S. national security. This was uncontroversial during World War II, when sailors and their families were routinely trained that "loose lips sink ships."
You may quibble with the application of these rules (the rule about profanity seems more and more anachronistic), but it is flatly untrue that citizens or the press have the right to say absolutely anything, anytime, in any medium. Few should disagree with the principle that there are restrictions on speech; the debate is really where the line ought to be drawn and how to enforce it. I argue that we should actually try to enforce the principle at least a little when it comes to protecting classified information, which would be a significant change from our current habit of not enforcing it at all.
Once again, it goes without saying that the Obama administration needs appropriate oversight and accountability, which is why we have the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, among other organs. No doubt they need to work better. And perhaps there ought to be a standing body charged with reviewing the government's classification decisions. But the need to protect classified information is as obvious as our government's failure to do so.
*(Some newspapers have tried to debunk this story by claiming there was no specific leak of the information about bin Laden's phone, or that it had been leaked previously to no effect. Of course the newspapers have an interest in exonerating themselves. Their efforts are unconvincing. If their claims are true, it is actually more damning that the information about bin Laden's satellite phone stemmed not from a specific leak but from a general culture of impunity among the media to disclose intelligence sources and methods. And the August 1998 reporting plainly had an effect on bin Laden, even if the information had been reported earlier. Both the 9/11 Commission and Clinton-era NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote in The Age of Sacred Terror, bin Laden stopped using his phone "instantly" after the publication of the story.)
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