Secrecy & Leaks

DNI General Counsel Robert Litt: "The New York Times Disgraced Itself"

By Yishai Schwartz, Sebastian Brady
Monday, April 27, 2015, 9:57 PM

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article on congressional support for the C.I.A.'s drone program. In describing the program's leadership, the Times saw fit to reveal the identity of three people it claims are covert C.I.A. operatives.

The publication of these names did not sit well, apparently, with Robert Litt, General Counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. During a panel discussion entitled "Whistleblowing and America’s Secrets: Ensuring a Viable Balance," hosted by the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies of Johns Hopkins’ School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, Litt ripped into the paper of record:

I think the New York Times disgraced itself over the weekend by publishing an article in which it purported to name three covert CIA officers. And I’m not confirming or denying any identities, but the Times identified three people who they said were covert officers. These are people whose identities is protected by statute. The Times’s justification, and I’m reading this here, is: "the New York Times is publishing the names because the individuals have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs, and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others."

I think that’s a pretty weak justification.

Number 1, the problem is not whether foreign governments know them. The problem is whether terrorists and lone wolves who are being solicited by groups like ISIS to make individual attacks in the United States, whether they knew who these people were.

Number 2, it’s not only them that’s at risk. It’s their families, and their contacts when they served in covert capacities overseas who are now going to be put at risk.

Number 3, if you read the New York Times story, the identities, the specific names of the individuals, was completely gratuitous and unnecessary to any argument that the Times was making in that story. What basically happens here is the Times, or its reporter, doesn’t like a policy that two Presidents of the United States have directed, and it’s fighting back against that by outing people who are simply implementing that policy. And as I said, in my mind, that’s disgraceful.

The Times story came up again during the question and answer period. In response to a question from the audience about what actions should be taken if, hypothetically, this leak resulted in harm to the exposed agents, Litt and Associated Press reporter Ken Dilanian had this testy exchange:

Ken Dilanian: I want people to understand, though, when we weigh these questions on names, we take into context: what is that person’s job? What is the actual threat? Are they actually going to be undercover? ---

Litt: So, Ken, what’s the news value to the public in knowing the names of the people?

Dilanian: Because we, the AP, haven’t made that decision, I don’t know...

Litt: No, but you have been in that position. Hypothetically, from the viewpoint of a media organization, what would be the interest in knowing these people’s names, particularly since, as you say, the authorized overseers in the executive and legislative branches know who these people are?

Dilanian: I think it comes down to public accountability. We live in a democracy, these are people exercising extraordinary power. The public has an interest in their names for the same reason it has an interest in your name.

Litt: What kind of accountability --- A, I’m not covert. B, I make policy decisions. What kind of accountability is furthered by publishing these people’s names? What’s the sort of accountability you’re talking about?

...

Litt: I mean, seriously, what sort of accountability do you envision happening to these people who ... were carrying out policies directed by two presidents? What sort of accountability do you think is furthered by publishing their names?

Dilanian: I think it’s a principle in our government that if they are wielding power and making life and death decisions, and there isn’t a compelling reason for the public not to know their names---there’s a burden on the government to show why the public shouldn’t know their names.

Steve Vladeck: I mean, why does the public have the right to know the names of military commanders? The problem, I think the problem is especially acute in the context of quasi- or paramilitary operations, right? Because, as Ken said before, these are among the most severe things the government conducts in our names. . . .

Litt has a point. The Times decision to out these officers is bewildering. Dilanian and Vladeck are certainly right that all else being equal, we should know the names of subjects in news stories---not least because named subjects and sources allow the public some oversight over the press. But high-minded, sweeping statements about how "a principle in our government" necessitates revealing the names of those "wielding power and making life and death decisions" is far too neat. It is American policy that ought to be debated, not our operatives. It is those who make the decisions who ought to be subjected to public scrutiny, not those who are tasked with implementing them. Naming covert operatives does nothing to advance the policy debate. It simply punishes those with whom the media disagrees.

Journalists and editors frequently argue that they---rather than government officials---are best suited to weigh competing interests and decide what information ought to be public. By publishing the names of covert operatives with only the vaguest statement of high principle as justification, the Times has made it harder to take the media's judgement seriously.