Participants in the Dialogue sessions have discussed the Bin Laden cell phone calls, as well as other stories the CIA claims have caused the loss of informants and the ability to monitor certain terrorists. Intelligence officials contend that stories based on intercepted satellite communications may alert terrorists to the fact that the United States can monitor their communications and read their codes.
A senior government official who has played a major role in the Dialogue sessions found them "extraordinarily constructive" but wonders whether that would be true if they had taken place before Sept. 11. "To the degree that journalists participated," he says, "they were talking about the need to protect sources and methods, understanding we had just been attacked by terrorists. And journalists had lost one of their own in Daniel Pearl [the Wall Street Journal reporter killed by terrorists in Pakistan]. They felt, personally, they needed to engage in how they can still get information out to the public so the public can understand what the government is doing, but at the same time not give away the government's ability to continue collecting intelligence."
Bill Harlow, CIA public affairs officer and a Dialogue participant, says there are times when a news article based on leaks can be written in a way that doesn't damage national security. "Often, agreeing to change just a few words is all it takes, and it helps to sensitize editors to that fact," he says.
Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, says some things have changed since the terrorist attacks but that the press still largely applies the same standards about what to publish as it did before Sept. 11. "We're just much more sensitive now about classified information, because it's like the difference between peacetime and war," he says.
Monitors of government secrecy are rethinking the issue as well. Steven Aftergood, executive director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project, says that before Sept. 11, he viewed secrecy policy as part of a game: The government kept secrets indiscriminately, and he disclosed them indiscriminately. "Before [Sept. 11], I believed I should vacuum up all the secrets I could and make them available on the Internet," he says. "Now I have to first determine whether the material disclosed can be used by terrorists."
By all accounts, the Dialogue meetings have made it easier for the media and the government to avoid knee-jerk reactions when leaks threaten national security. But all the goodwill fostered in the meetings will count for little as long as the Bush administration persists in shrouding its actions in secrecy, often without a legitimate national security reason. With the war on terrorism already chipping away at press freedom and other civil liberties, the need for vigilance in reporting on government and its penchant for secrecy has never been greater.