During the past few weeks the press has published purported revelations about U.S. intelligence activities in Libya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Last year there was a deluge of press reports on the "Year of the Spy."
A few days ago CIA Director William J. Casey asked the Justice Department to prosecute NBC News under a rarely used statute prohibiting publication of information about U.S. communications intelligence activities. Casey also has raised the prospect of prosecuting several of the nation's most prominent newspapers and periodicals for the same reason.
I share Casey's frustration at the torrent of leaks pouring out of the Administration about U.S. intelligence matters. Leaks were bad under the Ford Administration, became even worse during the Carter Administration and have turned into a deluge in the last six years. Yet the CIA director's attempt to solve the problem by striking at the press is an attack on the symptom rather than the cause of the leaks, and he is fighting on ground that the American people will never surrender.
Not long ago Administration officials tried to blame leaks on Congress, including the two intelligence oversight committees. Contrary to insinuations, Congress is capable of effectively overseeing the intelligence agencies while respecting essential secrecy. The members of the oversight committees take their responsibilities very seriously indeed; they fully appreciate the sensitivity of the information that they possess. More farsighted officials in these agencies understand that, because of the support of the oversight committees, intelligence budgets have grown substantially during the past 10 years. The existence of independent oversight committees has restored a measure of public confidence in the intelligence agencies after the shock and disgust over abuses in the mid-1970s.
More recently, greater attention has been paid to the true source of the leak problem--executive branch officials who selectively disclose information to bolster their side in internal policy debates. This is an Administration that has appointed many ideologically motivated people--people so committed to their views that they are prepared to leak classified information to advance them. Belatedly, two such appointees, one in the State Department and the other in the Pentagon, were identified as sources of leaks and have been dismissed.
The Administration now is turning to the press. It is easy to understand why. An aggressive post-Watergate press prides itself on its ability to discover confidential information as part of investigative journalism. But taking the press to court raises fundamental First Amendment issues, and, by risking losing the case, could make the problem of leaks even more difficult. Moreover, the government has an obligation to recognize that the press does not go out and steal or buy secrets; they are willingly and actively given to the news media by officials trying to promote a point of view.
One vital step to stop the hemorrhaging of national secrets is for the press to police itself. The media clearly have a responsibility not to knowingly reveal information that damages national security. But the exercise of that responsibility must come from self-restraint, an internal journalistic code of standards, not from being co-opted or intimidated by the government--which leads to a tame Soviet-style press and Big Brother authoritarianism.
The executive branch must mount a determined effort to identify and punish officials who disclose classified information for whatever reason, and however well-intentioned.
I do not advocate a return to the ill-advised attempt by the Administration to clamp that dubious instrument, the lie detector, onto millions of Americans who happen to work for the federal government. Rather, those with access must be significantly reduced from the more than 4 million who now have it, the annual mountain of classified documents (more than 20 million last year) must be slashed and some reasonable standards for classifying information must be devised. Not even a bureaucracy as large as that in Washington can produce 20 million genuine national-security secrets in one year. When everything is secret, people do not take the classification system seriously, and nothing is secret.
There should also be a sustained education effort by the executive branch and Congress to promote a better appreciation of the special character of intelligence information, especially that relating to the sources and methods of gathering intelligence. Government employees, the press and the public need to better understand why such information is genuinely sensitive, and the very real damage that can be done when it is disclosed.
Two great principles are involved in this new dispute between Casey and the press, just as two great principles are at issue in his dispute with the oversight committees.
Casey and the media are fighting over the sanctity of the First Amendment guarantee of a free press versus the protection of properly classified national-security information. In Casey's contest with us the debate revolves around what we understand to be the necessity for credible, meaningful oversight with full accountability to the American people, versus the ability of the Administration to use covert action without congressional interference. With a spirit of cooperation and restraint on all sides, workable solutions can be found that will preserve all these interests--and the national interest of which each is a part.