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Intelligence Reporting: Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

To say that I am on the anti-secrets-publication bandwagon would be something of an understatement, but while listening to various editors and reporters on the radio talking about the rightness or wrongness of revealing classified material during a time of war (which is a debatable point in some circles), a couple of questions occurred to me:

  • How many reporters on the national security beat have a hands-on background in the field?
  • How long have they been working these issues?
  • If I or one of my former colleagues decided to joint the ranks of newspaper journalists, would we publish the same stories?
  • What would make us hold off on a story; what would make us push for publication?
  • What would practitioners consider good (read: safe) reporting on the national security beat?

So I Googled a bit and talked to few friends and came up with the following:

I found bios of varying levels of detail on about ten-odd national security / intelligence beat reporters for major newspapers and wire services (this is no scientific study by any means and if time allows I’ll try to enhance a bit). Three were military veterans and two had experience of some kind in the intelligence field. Everyone covering the beat had at least a decade of experience in the field. There are a few fields of endeavor in which I believe that authentic credentials can only be gained by being-there and doing-that, and intelligence is one of them. Reporters can read about how it is done and they are briefed by gov’t sources, but by and large on this beat the number of reporters who know what real-live intelligence work involves are nominal. I know Arkin was an analyst and Pincus was in CI (though whether that was as an agent I don’t know). Everyone else is essentially an “expert” in the field thanks to book learnin’, which is not completely useless, but it is incomplete.

All of my former colleagues who currently or previously worked in the intelligence field said that they would only consider publishing stories like the NSA surveillance program and the SWIFT program after evaluating both the potential harm and potential good that might come from publication. No one was prepared to put anyone in danger, but by the same token no one was willing to serve as a rah-rah mouthpiece for anyone’s DNI or National Security Adviser. No one was prepared to publish technical details about ongoing operations or discuss current capabilities that were in use, but compiling such data for a larger historical work (read: book) was considered kosher. Would a former practitioner eventually publish the NSA and SWIFT stories? Yes.

What do people in the field think would be suitable for your morning fish-wrapper? A random sampling of headlines from the recent past serve as examples:

  • Goss Vows to Rebuild, Expand CIA (Priest, 2004)
  • Hussein’s Aims, Capabilities Often Differed (Priest, 2004)
  • 3 Iran-Contra Theories Await Inquiries by Counsel, Panels (Pincus, 1986)
  • Senators Seek Better Defense Imagery (Pincus, 2006)
  • Bush’s Intelligence Moves Don’t Attain Scope Urged by 9/11 Panel (Pincus, 2004)
  • Nominee Says NSA Stayed Within Law on Wiretaps (Lichtblau, 2006)
  • Extension of Patriot Act Faces Threat of Filibuster (Lichtblau, 2005)
  • Pentagon Office in Spying Case Was Focus of Iran Debate (Risen, 2004)
  • ’85 Hijacker Is Captured in Baghdad (Risen, 2003)

Basically, any sufficiently motivated intelligence officer who wanted to become a reporter would be able to do a serviceable job and provide adequate coverage of the pertinent issues, but they most certainly would not win any major journalism prizes. The flip side of that coin is that the people doing the job currently are doing a decent job; when they are not doing the one thing that people who truly understand the nature of the work and the impact of their actions would never do.

For a more personal take on the issue from someone who knows both sides of the coin very well, read Dan Verton’s editorial from earlier this year.

Various posts on the publish-and-perish discussion at NRO (Andrew McCarthy) (Rich Lowry), Heather MacDonald at the Weekly Standard, Captain’s Quarters, Hugh Hewitt, LGF, Roger Simon, Powerline . . .

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.