Panel Discussion: National Security
May 2, 1998
Discussion Who's Who
- Berkes, Howard – Correspondent based in Salt Lake City for National Public Radio.
- Frankel, Max – Former Executive Editor, New York Times, now columnist for Times Sunday Magazine.
- Hall, David – Editor, Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Kovach, Bill – Nieman Foundation Curator.
- Lewis, Anthony – Columnist, New York Times.
- Manning, Robert – Former Editor in Chief, Atlantic Monthly.
- Marder, Murrey – Retired Diplomatic Correspondent, The Washington Post.
- Meek, Jim – Editorial Writer and Columnist, Chronicle-Herald, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- Robbins, Carla Anne – Diplomatic Correspondent, Wall Street Journal.
- Schorr, Daniel – Senior News Analyst, National Public Radio.
- Stets, Dan – Business Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Taubman, Philip – Assistant Editorial Page Editor, New York Times.
The National Security panel was chaired by Daniel Schorr, who began the discussion.
This whole question of the journalistic watchdog role strikes me as being more relevant to what happens domestically than what happens internationally, but there are also international implications.
I think we're all in agreement that you cannot simply rely on what you're given spontaneously by government. You have to go and find the underlying things that are happening, the pressures, the incentives, inducements that are there.
We had to deal with the question of what technology does to our position as a journalistic watchdog in international affairs. That very quickly brought us to what happened toward the end of the Gulf War. The military had tried, on a whole, I think very successfully, to exercise a great deal of censorship.
On the other hand, something began to happen, which we think is a forerunner of what will be happening on an increasing scale, as we see our technology develop. We saw a CBS camera crew and correspondent arrive in Kuwait I think moments before the first elements of troops. So the first thing you saw live on television in America was CBS liberating Kuwait.
It was very easy to exercise censorship in World War I, World War II; it was a matter of submitting your dispatches. "We'll go through them, we'll give them back to you, and we control the communications, so we know that you will only send what we want you to send."
It's all over now. It's all over. Communications have been unleashed from that kind of control.
We're all conscious of the fact that it would not be helpful to the American cause in a war, if, as in the Gulf War, it was possible for Saddam Hussein to sit there in Baghdad and see the world-wide reach of CNN as it brought pictures from the battlefield, which might provide information to Saddam Hussein, which we generally would agree that it was not in the interests of the United States that he should have.
What do you do about that? Well, let's see if we can reach some kind of new modus vivendi with the military, which basically collapsed because of the Vietnam War.
I suggested that it might be necessary to negotiate something. Some of my colleagues didn't agree, didn't think it could be done, didn't think it necessarily should be done, that the proper role was, in fact, going to have to be an adversary one.
We touched a little bit on personnel, what kind of reporters we have. Clearly, we old fuddy duddies all believe that what we simply need is more reporters like us. I think there is a little bit of, well, gee whiz, nobody would pull the wool over our eyes. We all went through this thing and we were there. We served the American people and so on. It's getting very difficult to claim, however, that you served the American people, when the American people don't believe that you serve the American people. That, I believe, is probably the main reason we are here today – the press in every field has lost a great deal of credibility.
MANNING: Are most Americans not going to be interested in foreign affairs? These are subjects in many cases that not only bore the public, they bore publishers. They bore news directors and network news presidents. They're not sexy. They're complicated. There are other things that are easier to read and more titillating.
We didn't come up with a suggestion of how we do that. We said: Perhaps, foreign affairs, international affairs, is basically a subject for a relatively small elite in America. It may be a lot of journalism should assume that that elite – 5 million or 6 million people is the estimate – should be the target of major newspapers and, to a certain extent, the other news deliverers.
TAUBMAN: Can I just jump in with one observation? I think the way to deal with the problems is not to work out some kind of new, more diplomatic relationship between the press and the American government. My experience as a journalist, which came at a slightly later point, and so was formed more by Vietnam than World War II, is that the government is deceptive, and that that is a core component of American foreign policy. They do not want to provide accurate and truthful information to the press. If we try to develop some kind of more cordial understanding with the Defense Department or the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Council, it's going to be a one-way street, in which we will somehow be less aggressive in return for a continuing stream of disinformation.
From my vantage point, the way to deal with this is to continue to be as aggressive as you can. This may not be a popular opinion, but I'm not particularly concerned that the American people find the press too aggressive or find the press conferences during the Gulf War to be intrusive in some kind of fashion. If we get intimidated by that, we cease to do our job.
ROBBINS: I am with Phil. I was one of the people who helped organize the pools in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf War and feel like I should have my head shaved for that experience.
We have to be really vigilant about that.
Working in Washington is incredibly seductive. People ask me for advice on foreign policy. It's very tempting. I'm an American. I care. I'm a foreign policy junkie. I care about what they do. I don't want people to die. I want the U.S., which I think is a good place, to help promote democracy abroad. But I can't cover it adequately, if I'm helping craft the policy.
It's really, really subtle. They don't invite you in for one-on-ones all that often. But all the time, there's this sort of implicit co-opting. I see it in small briefings in the National Security Advisor's Office in which reporters start saying: "Well, what are we going to do?" If we start thinking of "us" as "we," it's lost. I think we have to be alienated. I'm not really sure we should be going to dinner parties with them, or dating them, or sleeping with them, or giving us our deep insights into things. If they want to know what I think, they can read it in the newspaper.
That's one of the things in Washington that really, really frightens me.
I went to a small town in Missouri that had 25 missile silos being destroyed under an arms-control agreement. I talked to people – kids in high school and guys at the Elks lodge and all of that. I found people remarkably aware. I loved the woman who said that the silo was such a part of her life that, when boys came to pick her up for dates in high school, she'd say: "Well, you'll go to the silo and turn left." I mean, these were people who had really lived with the Cold War.
But once it was over with, they didn't turn off from the world. It was easier when we could say who was winning and who was losing – who lost Angola, who won Angola, when it was almost like a football game.
If you write human stories about human experiences that aren't foreign, necessarily, I think people can begin to understand foreign policy and the impact that we have on the world and the world has on us. So I'm not despairing at all.
SCHORR: Phil, can you talk for a moment about the difficulty of getting the CIA to be honest when they're trying to keep everything secret?
TAUBMAN: I was never successful. The only way I ever found to report accurately on the CIA was to report around it. Some journalists have been successful in developing sources inside the agency. In the years I was covering it for The Times, I had a few officials who would take my phone calls. But I never believed for a minute that any of them were telling me the whole
truth and nothing but the truth. The way I worked the CIA, and I think it's probably still done today is, I worked Congress, Congressional aides, members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. They know an awful lot about what's going on at the CIA. They're circumspect as well, but you can learn something from them.
I did something, I guess, which is colloquially referred to as whipsaw reporting, in which I would take information that I learned from a Congressional source and I would run it by somebody on the National Security Council. And they might elaborate a little bit more. The more I knew as a reporter, the more information I was able to get from sources, because they began to talk to me as somebody who they believed was informed about the subject and not just fishing for information.
Then, of course, there were people in the private sector who were trying to do what I was doing for The New York Times, they were trying to do for public interest groups or whatever cause that they were trying to further.
Eventually, you could put together a picture of what was going on.
LEWIS: I think all of us feel inadequacies in the performance of the press. But some things are better than they used to be. I go back to Guatemala, where a correspondent for The New York Times, the late Sidney Gruson, found out what was about to happen, the overthrow of the elected President of Guatemala by the CIA and its allies. The CIA persuaded the publisher of The New York Times, at that time, to remove Sidney from the scene. That's unthinkable today, I think. The whole system in newspapers has become much more resistant to government pressure and the sense that we know best what's for you.
FRANKEL: I'm glad Phil added the description of how he worked. Even though he called it adversarial, some of those phone calls that were answered and some of that working that he did required something less than total hostility with the people whom he was talking to. That's the dilemma throughout. Information, after all, is a commodity and it is power. And it is the government's intention to use it, to withhold it, to abuse it. It is our job to ferret it out. In the process, we are often sloppy and irresponsible. So the government needs to educate us. And we need the government to inform us. Out of that comes a very tense and, I think, never-ending contest. Overdone in any one direction. If we get too close and are the mere handmaidens of government, we fail in our function. If we stay so aloof and so hostile that we remain uninformed and dumb, I don't think over the long run we can write intelligently about what is going on.
That tension, I think, is going to dog us. The pendulum may swing a bit to one side or the other, but it will never be resolved.
The same thing by extension goes to the use of secrets in the international realm. The press cannot be properly informed unless it shares in some of the secrets in which government trades. Therefore, the sources have to be confidential, etcetera, and you have to deal with the adversary relationships in government.
To find out what's going on in the CIA, you have to find out who in government is opposed to what they're doing and have them tell you what's going on with the CIA and vice versa. You triangulate on the information.
Similarly, the government cannot fully and properly inform the public as to what it is doing and why without trading in secrets. The information may be secret one day, but the next day, they have to go to Congress and get an appropriation and suddenly they blow the secrets.
My view in the end is that our reputation and our standing with the American people needs to be understood as being very different where different media are involved.
The real problem today as I see it is that too few journalistic organizations are, in fact, committed to journalism and to quality journalism. Commerce drives so much of the information business today that we are not going to get anywhere in serving our democracy by beating each other over the head about the irresponsibility of practicing journalists. What we need to do is to take on the media, examine why it is not performing the information functions that most mature people find lacking.
BERKES: On this issue of what Americans think about journalists, it seems clear to me that we're not viewed as watchdogs any more. We're either lap dogs, going to cocktail parties in Washington, or attack dogs in news conferences on CNN live. I believe that we need to care about what Americans think about what we do, because what good is our information if it's not trusted or believed in or even listened to?
TAUBMAN: What concerns me is the sense that somehow the American press should provide its readers and viewers with what they want to read and see, and that we should collect surveys on these subjects, we should run focus group sessions on these kinds of subjects, and then refashion or create our journalism to be responsive to what we learned from those groups. It isn't always the case that what people want to read and see is mutually exclusive with what journalists would like to provide. I think, actually, in most cases, there's probably a fair amount of commonality there.
But I think the danger – and it ties directly into the issues of increasingly large corporate control over journalistic institutions – is that you end up with the people who run these institutions trying to design journalism solely for profit and for stockholders and for Wall Street analysts. And forget the principles that brought them into the profession or brought the people who work with them into the profession.
If we stop making people uncomfortable, I think we may stop practicing good journalism.
BERKES: Isn't it more about how we behave and not what we report?
TAUBMAN: The behavior of the scrum that greets Betty Currie when she comes out of the courthouse, the encampment of reporters outside the home of whoever is in the news these days – those are troubling to me and I think they should be to the business. They've gotten worse over time, because everybody has a camera now. Every local television station is able to send a mobile unit out. It's no longer just a handful of network crews staking out people or crowding around them.
BERKES: Let's not forget it's also print. It's The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Constitution, all going with stories, weekly source stories on Internet sites before that information has been checked out. This is not just a broadcast phenomenon. That shark mentality to me also appears among editors and reporters of all media.
ROBBINS: We have to discipline ourselves. We're doing it with everybody else. We've got to tell the truth about ourselves. The Wall Street Journal screwed up in a royal way, as if the Internet were different. I don't think the Internet is different. There are wire services, instantaneous news all the time.
We all sit around asking questions about the time pressures and, does it really matter if you're first if you end up running the chance of being wrong?
We have got to raise these questions in the press so that we have a legitimate discussion among ourselves and so that the public knows that we're thinking about it.
STETS: I work for one of those organizations that does reader surveys. Our surveys, even in recent years in Philadelphia, show that the interest in foreign news is as high as the interest in sports news. And I think Philadelphia is no less a sports town than Boston. It's an astounding figure.
HALL: I don't know if this is a characteristic of older cities or what, but interest in foreign news [in Cleveland] is very high. When the NAFTA debate was going on in Congress, based on what we heard, what we read in letters, what we got in phone calls, the most intense interest in that was in the blue collar suburbs to the south, the auto plant and the steel mills. The good men and women of Shaker Heights [had] sort of an élite interest in this theoretically, but these people [in the blue-collar area] it affected their jobs. We played the story quite heavily, played it more heavily as time went on. We got tremendous reaction. The same has been true with what is going on in Central Europe, with calls of the nature of the populous.
MEEK: Phil, I wanted to ask you if you could provide a case in point where there was information you decided not to publish for national security reasons that later came out.
TAUBMAN: Late in the Carter administration, I learned that the CIA and the National Security Agency had negotiated an arrangement to open a listening post in Western China that would look out essentially over the Soviet missile test launch sites. As the Soviet missiles would make their flight across Siberia and the Asian part of the Soviet Union, this listening post would monitor the telemetry coming from those missiles and we would learn about their capabilities.
This was done in great secrecy. It was done at a time when the American/Chinese relationship was improving. But it was far from clear to anyone in the public, and I think in journalism, that it had reached the point of such intimate cooperation on such a sensitive matter that was also of such extreme sensitivity to the Russians as well as the Chinese and the Americans. The next thing we knew, Svig Brezhinski was on the phone asking for me. At [a] meeting, he made the case that publication of the story could be explosive, because, number one, it would humiliate the Russians to have it disclosed that we were doing this. Secondly, it would be terribly embarrassing for the Chinese to have it become public that they were in such a close relationship with the United States. It would probably force the Chinese to shut down the station. It might even provoke a crisis between the Soviet Union and China. Finally, that the United States would lose vitally important intelligence information about Soviet missile capabilities. I guess we postponed publication at that point, at Brezhinski's urging.
Then Reagan was elected. And I, in a kind of mischievous way, said: "Okay. We've got a new administration. Let's roll this up the flag pole again and see if we can put it in the paper now." At that point Bill Casey, the new Director of Central Intelligence, came by the bureau. I think, at some point along the way, Reagan or Casey may have called Punch Sulzberger to ask that we withhold publication. A deal was made, which I opposed, which was that we would not publish until it appeared elsewhere. In return for our forbearance, Casey promised to tell us when he knew that another news organization was about to publish this information.
One day, I get a phone message to call the bureau. Yes, Casey's kept his end of the bargain. He's informed us that that very night, NBC News (Marvin Kalb) was about to go on the air with that story. We ran the story that night, having lost our exclusive, and by my lights, probably having held the story longer than we should have.
MARDER: I have a footnote. I encountered a similar kind of problem because at The Washington Post, being a much less hierarchical organization, I did not have to go through the kind of channels that you did. I was usually able to make those kind of decisions myself. I came across the same story from someone up on the Hill, and in short order, ran it through the State Department, was told that this would be the greatest disaster to national security imaginable if it were printed, which was something I'd been hearing for many years about every story. I found out that a member of Congress on a delegation had mentioned it and it actually had appeared in print in some obscure publication. The National Editor was distracted by something. I convinced the Sunday section that they should use it. Marvin Kalb called me up. He said: "How come this was buried in a Sunday feature?" And I said: "Because the National Editor was distracted and didn't pay attention to it." He said: "Was there anything wrong with it?" I said: "Absolutely not." And that is what you then heard on the air.
KOVACH: Let me add one more footnote. One of the major arguments they used was that, if this were published in The New York Times, the Chinese government would be forced to close the station. Subsequent to this whole hooray, I was at lunch with some people from the Chinese embassy, including a general. While we were eating lunch, he finally looked across the table and said: "Tell me. Why did The New York Times not run the story about the missiles?" I said: "Well, among other things, we were told it would force you to shut it down." He said: "No, no, no. We wanted the story out to let the Soviet Union know what our relationship was with the United States at this time."