When the New York Times published the name of a Central Intelligence Agency interrogator last month, it potentially placed him in jeopardy for no valid reason, wrote Joel Brenner, the ODNI National Counterintelligence Executive, in a letter to the New York Times Public Editor that was distributed by the ODNI last week.
“Journalists face difficult decisions every day about the prudence of publishing private information,” Mr. Brenner wrote. “But in this case the decision to out the individual had nothing to do with the media’s responsibility to inform the public about important government policies or actions.”
In a ground-breaking story by reporter Scott Shane on June 22, the Times described how a CIA interrogator had successfully managed the interrogation of 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed using legal, non-coercive means. But over the objections of the CIA and the interrogator himself, the Times chose to disclose his name.
An editor’s note accompanying the story noted that the interrogator had never worked under cover and asserted that publication of his name “was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article.”
In a July 6 article, the New York Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, investigated the decision to publish the name and concurred with it. To withhold such information, he wrote, “especially in this age of increasing government secrecy, would leave news organizations hobbled when trying to tell the public about some of the government’s most important and controversial actions.”
That’s “nonsense,” responded Joel Brenner, the ODNI official. Disclosure of the individual’s name “had nothing to do with the media’s responsibility to inform the public about important government policies or actions,” he wrote. “The Times was going to tell the public about these interrogations whether the interrogator’s name was used or not.”
According to Clark Hoyt, Times executive editor Bill Keller said that he had discounted a request from CIA director Michael Hayden to withhold the name because the CIA could not cite a specific threat to the interrogator. “I had this impression that he [Hayden] was doing it out of respect for [the interrogator]’s and his family’s concerns more than a concern the C.I.A. had.”
Mr. Brenner wrote that the Times “trivialized the risk to the man by putting him to the impossible burden of showing with near certainty that he would be harmed. This was morally confused.”
One might also argue against Mr. Keller that the concerns of the interrogator and his family were entitled to more consideration than those of the CIA, not less, since it was his privacy and his security that were at stake. But that was not the Times’ view, nor that of most other reporters and columnists who have commented on the subject.
The Times has previously been criticized not only for disclosing classified information but also for withholding it from publication. Although Times reporters learned of the Bush Administration’s warrantless electronic surveillance program in 2004, it was not reported in the newspaper until December 2005. In effect, critics said, the Times helped the Administration for more than a year to conceal the classified program despite its probable illegality.
U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, are poorly positioned to offer rational criticism of press disclosure practices since their own secrecy practices are so manifestly irrational.
For example, although the 2007 budget for the National Intelligence Program was officially declassified and published last year ($43.5 billion), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said last month (pdf) that the 2006 budget figure will remain classified.