WASHINGTON — The dispute between the Reagan Administration and the press over coverage of the trial of Ronald W. Pelton, convicted of selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, raises an important question: Why does virtually every Administration end up fighting with the press over coverage of national security matters?
Many in the press would have us believe that there is something in White House food that turns every Administration into an opponent of the First Amendment. Some Administration officials seem to suggest that the press corps is an almost criminal class, anxious to sell out the country for a good story.
Neither the Administration nor the press, however, addresses the fundamental problem--the very real conflict between the perceived demands of national security and the established obligations of journalism.
In moments of extreme crisis national security permits, even honors, otherwise dishonorable actions, from deceit up to murder, that contribute to the nation's survival. For centuries scoundrels have exploited this, claiming crisis where none existed to justify vile acts.
Journalism is more neutral. It reports actions that have taken place and the reasons policy makers offer. It leaves to the reader judgments as to whether these actions are right or wrong.
Press neutrality can be dangerous, particularly when reporting is incorrect. In Reagan's first term, false U.S. press reports that the United States had launched a covert operation against the Libyan government caused Moammar Kadafi to threaten retaliation, publicly. Soon the U.S. press was filled with reports, never substantiated, that a Libyan hit squad was on its way to assassinate the President.
Two developments, however, have made the problem of covering national security issues more acute. The first is the steady blurring of the distinction between peace and war. Frederick the Great of Prussia used to maintain that civilians should not even be aware when a state of war existed. In the days of monarchy and mercenary armies that was possible. But increasingly the distinction between peace and war has been erased as governments mobilize ever larger portions of their populations over ever longer periods of time for the purposes of war. Now, in an era of enduring hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, some contend that America must follow the requirements of war in times of formal peace. And in war, the press is censored.
In the postwar era, facing a new type of challenge, Administrations have felt that they needed to conduct wars without seeking formal declarations of war from Congress. They have also wanted greater control over the press without seeking legislation to authorize it. And in fact they have often been able to prevail upon the press not to reveal and the Congress not to investigate developments that otherwise each would rush to expose. Everyone knows that some major newspapers knew of the pending invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy Administration, but for reasons of national security did not reveal this knowledge. Both the press and the Congress looked the other way for many years regarding dubious and ultimately dangerous Central Intelligence Agency operations until a record of botched assassinations and misguided subornations broke into the open and humiliated the nation. To this day, though the documents are available, few in the United States know about the numerous, poorly conceived clandestine operations in Eastern Europe during the 1950s that do not justify but help explain some harsh Soviet response to U.S. actions on the European continent.
The executive branch has always been especially sensitive about cryptography-- and for good reason. The father of U.S. cryptography, Herbert Osborne Yardley, who broke the Japanese code during Washington naval limitation talks in 1921-22, could only carry on his operation by persuading Western Union to violate U.S. law in providing him with copies of diplomatic messages. When Henry J. Stimson became secretary of state in 1929, he was outraged to learn that government agencies were consciously violating the law to read foreign government messages. He closed down Yardley's unit. When Yardley later tried to publish a book on his unit's achievements, the government conspired to prevent publication.
The U.S. agency that now attempts to read other governments' messages is the National Security Agency, where Pelton worked. It remains the most secretive government body. The Reagan Administration's sensitivity about any publicity for its work has deep roots.