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Should The Washington Post Be Publishing Classified Information?
The "Discord Leaks" are not the Pentagon Papers
I have spent the last couple of weeks going back and forth about writing this post. When you’re a journalist and many of your friends are in the industry, writing articles analyzing and critiquing the press can be fraught.
Yet, I firmly believe that the policing of any organization, entity, or community should start from within. I’m as strong a champion of the free press (and government transparency) as you will find, which is why I do speak up when I think the profession is doing wrong or could be doing better. Given the increasing animosity toward the media, fueled in no small part by Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric toward journalists and news organizations, it’s critical for the media act ethically and professionally beyond reproach.
Thus, I am raising concerns about recent media releases and reporting of classified information. Specifically, I am concerned about The Washington Post’s decision to publish classified material it obtained from the Discord leaks, but Newsweek also recently obtained classified information that it reported—badly and with little to no context.
Simply put, I don’t think The Washington Post should be turning the material it gathered from the Discord leak into featured content. I think it should sit on most, if not all, of the content in the interests of national security.
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My views on this topic—media releasing or reporting classified information—are not the norm in the profession. I should say, my current views are not the norm.
I spent most of 2000 through 2017 working as a journalist (and returned to the field in 2021). During that first stretch, I was as eager as any journalist to receive leaked information that would lead to a good story. Ideally, you want a leak about malfeasance or impropriety that you can turn into an expose that leads to some form of justice or policy change (and awards for your work).
Given that the First Amendment and numerous Supreme Court cases have made it clear that journalists and news organizations for the most part cannot be stopped from publishing classified information and are unlikely to be sanctioned after the fact, why wouldn’t journalists want to get their hands on sexy classified info that they can turn into bombshell stories? That was certainly my headspace for a long time.
Then, in 2017, I took a job at the Defense Department Office of Inspector General and had access to classified information on the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, the Philippines, and other locations that to this day I cannot disclose.
Once I passed through the looking glass, my thinking on revealing classified information started to change.
Before you can access classified information, you go through a healthy amount of training about the classification system, how to safely access and store information, and penalties you will face for inadvertent or intentional releases of classified information—referred to as spilling or leaking respectively.
It’s serious business. Violating the trust placed on you as a government official responsible for working with classified information is a big deal and can get people killed. It’s not hyperbole.
Once you are given clearance and access, you are legally bound to protect any classified information you handle forever, or at least until the information is declassified. Even if you leave government, the secrets stay secret.
When you first dive into classified information, you quickly realize two things. First, there is a lot going on behind the curtain, and everything is more complicated than it seems from the outside—that should not come as a surprise. In my case, I had access to classified information about places and military operations I had reported on, and I realized how much I didn’t know or understand. At the same time, classified information often confirmed suspicions and wasn’t necessarily surprising.
Still, you quickly realize that national security is serious business and there is a lot of information, or sources and methods of gathering information, that must be protected. The national security harm of disclosure would far outweigh the benefit to the public of knowing the details.
The second thing you realize when you look behind the curtain is that the government pathologically classifies/overclassifies information that does not meet the requirements for classification. There was a ton of information that I read in classified documents that had no business being classified—disclosing the information would not cause any harm to national security and the public would benefit from knowing the information.
However, I had no authority to declassify. That is reserved for a select population of individuals who are granted original classification authority—they can classify and declassify information.
I had derivative authority, which meant I would access and work with any material up to my classification level, and I could create new documents with the material, but I could not change the classification of any material.
There are lengthy handbooks online if you want to get into the weeds of understanding portion marking and the differences between controlled unclassified information, confidential, secret no-foreign, and other gradations. Keep it in mind the next time you are having trouble sleeping.
Anyhow, in my position and with the authority I had until I left the government in 2021, I could not decide that information in a classified document should not have been classified and then release it. I could, and often did, go back to the source of the information to discuss/debate/argue/fight over why it was classified. There were cases when I was able to get a source to revise the classification, sometimes with a seemingly miniscule change in wording, to make something releasable. Other times, my hands were tied, and I had to stay mum on what I, and often others, thought was innocuous information.
Had I decided something was improperly classified and released it or leaked it to the media, I would have faced potentially severe consequences. For that matter, had I wanted to impress journalist friends or stroke my ego by leaking classified information, I would have been subject to jail time depending on the material.
Suffice, to say, I never released or leaked any classified information.
Yet, had I done so, any journalist I leaked it to could have published it with no consequence. I’ve always struggled to reconcile that. As a government official, I was subject to arrest for leaking classified information, but as a journalist, once it’s in my hands, I have immunity.
To be clear, just because I am a journalist again, I cannot take information I know to be classified and publish it and claim first amendment protection. I am still bound to protect any classified information I accessed while in government. Plus, I cannot confirm, deny, or share any news reports or social media posts containing classified information, which is why I’m not discussing any specifics in this post. Even though most of what was in the Discord leaks was not material that I had access to, and I’m not legally bound to protect it, I don’t think there is an upside to sharing it.
Now, why do people leak classified information and what’s the benefit of publishing it? Some people leak information to expose what they consider to be government wrongdoing. Those are the Daniel Ellsbergs and Edward Snowdens, although those two cases are more different than similar. I still think Snowden was more activist than whistleblower, and he had other options including approaching an inspector general or congressional committee that could have led to reforms without all the collateral damage of his leaks. Some consider Snowden a champion of transparency and a hero, I think he should be prosecuted.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Jack Teixeira, who appears to have released a trove of classified information, that he had no need to know or access, purely to impress people. He wasn’t exposing wrongdoing. He wasn’t a whistleblower claiming to be looking out for the country and the American people. He appears to have been a troubled individual seeking attention and did so by unzipping a fly full of secret and top secret documents that he had copied or printed and illegally removed from secure systems and facilities.
There is no evidence he wanted the media to have the information he was posting. He did not reach out to any reporters or news organizations offering the information.
News outlets gathered the classified information from Discord or other sources after the disclosures came to light. The Washington Post was ahead of everyone else in finding the information and ferreting out exclusive access.
Thus—finally getting back to my original point of this post—I don’t think there is journalistic value in reporting on or exposing the information Teixiera posted to Discord.
According to reporting, there were not many people who saw or had access to the material Teixeira posted, and it appears much of it has been scrubbed from the bowels of the internet. Therefore, the damage was largely contained.
But The Washington Post got its hands on a lot of the material and has been publishing stories revealing and discussing the classified information.
I disagree with that decision. I do not think it benefits the public and I think it harms national security—and harms U.S. allies. Legally, the Post is within its rights to publish the material, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision. It’s a choice, not a necessity.
Now, this is purely my opinion here, but I think most journalists I know—sorry friends—do not have the training or experience to weigh the competing interests and consider the national security equities when deciding to report on classified information. There aren’t any incentives in the news business to make anyone think twice about publishing classified information. Quite the opposite.
I’m sure the Post stories on the Discord leaks have done well and attracted eyeballs. I’ve done some unscientific probing, and it doesn’t seem like there has been much dissent, if any, inside the organization about posting the exclusive classified material it gathered.
And the pre-2017 version of me probably would have been jealous and giving the newspaper props for securing the information and publishing exclusives. If the current version of me worked at the paper, I would have been sitting in editorial meetings pushing back aggressively asking over and over, “What is the public need to know and value of releasing this information versus the potential harm to the United States and its allies? What is the potential gain for U.S. adversaries by having this information revealed?”
To be fair to the Post, I don’t think any other major news outlet would have done things any differently. Still, that doesn’t absolve the Post of a duty to go to great lengths to ensure that the public benefit of knowing the information Teixeira shared is greater than the potential harm of releasing the information.
The site Press Watch has raised similar concerns. In a discussion of the Post’s handling of the Discord leaks, Press Watch wrote the following:
I asked the Post eight questions that I think are in the public interest.
1. You received these documents from your source, who had taken them from the Discord “Thug Shaker” server. Correct?
2. Do you know when these documents were deleted from the Discord server? Was it before any were posted more publicly, on the Telegram server, or discovered by the Times?
3. Is it your view that these documents were “public” before they were deleted?
4. Are you assuming that adversaries have already seen these documents?
5. If not, are you discussing the possible damage of disclosure with the originating organizations?
6. How are you deciding what is worth disclosing?
7. Are there any/many documents that you are not intending to disclose? Why or why not?
8. How are your keeping the documents safe in your possession? How are reporters working with them?
They declined to answer them. “We will have to decline to answer your questions. Our reporting speaks for itself,” wrote Jennifer Lee of the Post’s PR team. So I went directly to executive editor Sally Buzbee, who replied: “I think we are going to no comment at this point.”
I would been much more satisfied by an answer to the effect of, “We have held lengthy deliberation about this matter, consulted legal and national security experts, and have taken appropriate steps to keep the information secure and are withholding details that could put national security at risk.”
I am disappointed the answers to Press Watch were so dismissive. That’s why I’m pushing on this.
There is no question this is a longstanding dilemma. The government absolutely needs to protect certain information and the sources and methods of gathering information. Transparency absolutists aside, most people can agree that keeping some things secret is in the interests of national security.
Figuring out the line is as much art as science, however. Does the government have a right to keep illegal activity secret? Most would argue that if the government is conducting illegal surveillance on American citizens or secretly bombing Cambodia, that needs to be exposed in the interests of accountability and keeping government in check.
What if the government is spending billions on developing a classified aircraft and the program is not meeting objectives and costs are spiraling? Does the public have a need to know, or should that be handled by inspectors general and congressional oversight committees?
What if Ukrainian forces have a vulnerability or capability gap that is worrying to U.S. officials, and they are working on contingency plans or ways to close the gap? Should that be leaked to the public, and by extension the Russian military so it can try to take advantage of that vulnerability?
I would say no in that last example. Does is make for a sexy news story? Sure. Does the “benefit” to the public of knowing about it exceed the potential national security harm, or harm to U.S. allies and interests? I say no.
And this is the fundamental problem with the Discord leaks. Unlike Snowden, Manning, or Winner, who claimed they were trying to right wrongs and expose nefarious U.S. government activity, what Jack Teixeira was (allegedly) doing served no such altruistic interest.
He was effectively trying to impress a group of people with the size of his penis. That’s what it boils down to. He was leaking information to show off. And unlike other leakers who went to the media with the intent of having the classified information shared with the world, Teixeira did not appear to have any interest in the media getting ahold of the classified material he was posting on Discord.
The information he posted was only seen by a small audience before the media got its hands on it. The leak was contained/containable.
News outlets could have sat on the Discord information.
Ultimately, I think there are three problems to address in the Teixeira/Discord case.
First, the government needs to get its house in order and make sure it is giving the right clearances to the right people for the right reasons. And federal agencies need to take decisive action when they see signs of questionable behavior by people with access to classified information.
The Discord leak was preventable from the outset, and the Defense Department and intelligence agencies need to reckon with that.
Second, the government needs to reform its approach to classifying information. Instead of starting with the assumption that everything should be classified and then looking for reasons to declassify, the approach should be to look at information as unclassified until you can articulate a reason it shouldn’t be.
That might seem like a subtle shift, but it’s a significant change in attitude and necessary to avoid over and unnecessary classification, which can end up being a motivation for people to leak.
Lastly, the media need to think long and hard about standards and practices of obtaining and reporting classified information. Even journalists who have advanced degrees in journalism aren’t necessarily schooled in the ethics and implications of disclosing classified information.
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