Tightening the veil of secrecy

March 6, 2006

The Bush administration is warring with the media over the government’s right to keep its secrets secret. For the public, even when the facts are murky the principles should be clear: The government should use secrecy when it must to safeguard security and protect its ability to deliberate effectively — not to fend off proper scrutiny, conceal wrongdoing or promote narrow agendas of its own.

How about this then? In 2003 a mid-level Pentagon Iran specialist named Lawrence Franklin — a ex-Air Force colonel with facility in Farsi, a Ph.D. in Asian studies and close ties to the neo-conservatives of the foreign policy establishment — had grown alarmed at what he believed was U.S. failure to meet the threats posed by Iran. According to a New Yorker magazine account, Franklin began meeting with outsiders, among them analysts with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group.

The AIPAC people were its veteran foreign policy director Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, an Iran specialist. Among other things, Franklin complained to them that Secretary of State Colin Powell was resisting Pentagon pressure to toughen up on Iran.

In June 2004 the FBI raided Franklin’s office and home and found numerous classified documents. They leaned on him hard, and hoping for leniency Franklin flipped, agreeing to wear a wire and resume his contacts with AIPAC. The FBI devised a sting. On July 21 Franklin told Weissman the Pentagon had confidential information that Iranian operatives were targeting Israeli agents in northern Iraq and were planning attacks on U.S. soldiers in the south.

Franklin said he was powerless to force the U.S. government to act and wanted Weissman’s help. Weissman conferred with Rosen, and they contacted Israel’s U.S. embassy about the threat to Israeli agents, and called the Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent in hopes of calling attention to the danger to GIs.

In August 2005 the two AIPAC analysts were indicted for “conspiracy to communicate national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it.”

Now this is interesting. They weren’t accused of serving as agents of a foreign country or violating legal obligations related to security clearances or non-disclosure agreements. Nor were they charged with doing anything harmful to the United States.

In effect, these guys had been sucker-punched. They had been tipped off, falsely, to possibly imminent threats to people who were serving U.S. objectives, and who, they were told, were not being adequately protected. And as expected, they turned to channels that they believed would trigger an appropriate response.

In so doing, they’re now told, they committed espionage.

Whatever their guilt or innocence, the charges on which they will shortly be tried raise alarming issues that might seem remote from the circumstances of their case. What they did, journalists do all the time. As their lawyer said, they have been “indicted as felons for doing far less than for what reporters have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes.”

In a memorandum, the ex-head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Viet Dinh, who co-authored the USA Patriot Act, wrote: “Never has a lobbyist, reporter, or any other non-government employee been charged . . . for receiving oral information the government alleges to be national defense material as part of that person’s normal First Amendment protected activities.”

The informant, Lawrence Franklin, was recently given a staggering 12-1/2 years in prison, to be reduced if he helps prosecutors. In pronouncing sentence, federal judge Thomas Ellis said: “Persons who … who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law. That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.”

That reading has alarmed journalists. “The indictments in this case raise issues that could well affect the very nature of how journalism can be practiced,” said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a brief unsealed last week.

“These charges potentially eviscerate the primary function of journalism to gather and publicize information of public concern ‘particularly where the most valuable information to the public is information that other people, such as the government, want to conceal,’” the committee said, quoting a 1984 appellate ruling.

What’s imperiled aren’t just disclosures about secret Eastern European jails for terror suspects or stories exposing sweeping electronic surveillance. We also wouldn’t see reporting about private White House talks on energy policy or about executive level dithering over Hurricane Katrina.

Already court-shy, news managers will be waiting to see if this aggressive notion of official secrecy will get the approval of the nation’s courts, and the press will be instructed to accept, at last, that the news is nothing more than the official line.

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