‘Right to know’ and ‘need to know’ don’t always jibe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘Right to know’ and ‘need to know’ don’t always jibe

Fred Kalhammer

The column, “Treason? They’re kidding right?” (authored by Jim Scripps) in the July 10 Tribune was unusually, but understandably, impassioned. After all, it was penned by a journalist. I would, however, take issue with its author’s framing of the issue as regards the publication of leaked national security information. The gist of his argument seems to be contained in the following statement: “In their minds, the administration’s right to operate in secrecy supersedes the media’s Ð and in effect, the people’s Ð right to question how the government operates.” Without implying approval or disapproval of how the administration has waged its war on terrorism thus far, it is my view that the issue would more properly be stated as follows: When does the people’s need to know what the government is doing supersede the government’s obligation to protect its citizens? Note the use of the term “need to know,” as opposed to a non-existent “right” to know certain classified information, which is specifically exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

While some may think that the terrorists were already well aware that our government was monitoring certain telephone conversations and financial transactions based on general statements to that effect by administration officials, this does not mean that each and every “bad guy” in each and every circumstance was aware of the specific steps the government was taking to intercept the terrorists’ communications or disrupt their means of financing, and was taking evasive measures in response. That this was not the case may, in fact, be the source of administration officials’ expressed outrage at The New York Times and others, as opposed to the Tribune column’s very serious allegation that “they want to shut the media down through intimidation.”

That said, these comments are not meant to defend the administration’s actions or its attitude toward the information media, but rather to emphasize the point that when journalists decide to publish sensitive national security information over the objections of government officials, they interpose their judgment as to the damage such disclosures may cause ahead of the judgment of those who have taken an oath to defend their country, its Constitution and its citizens. This is a heavy responsibility to undertake, especially when it will probably never be known what effects the disclosures may have.

Certainly, the administration’s position on this issue would be much stronger had it not lost substantial credibility on the matter of leaks by engaging in selective leaking itself in order to bolster public support for the war in Iraq, and in order to discredit critics of its policies, like former Ambassador Joe Wilson, by blowing the cover of his wife, CIA employee Valerie Plame, for example. Nor has it pursued and taken action against the sources of leaks within the administration with the same vigor as it has displayed in voicing its displeasure with certain media outlets.

At the end of the day, the readers of these comments and the Tribune’s column will have to judge for themselves as to whether they had a serious “need to know” about the NSA’s eavesdropping activities, the existence of secret prisons in Eastern Europe, the detention and involuntary transportation of terrorist suspects from one foreign country to another, etc., etc. In my own view, the matter is not nearly so clear cut as the author of the column would have its readers believe, nor should we blithely “leave clandestine operations to governments like Iran, North Korea and China,” as it naively concludes. If we did that, one day we might find ourselves unable to express our opinions … in Farsi, Korean or Mandarin!

– Fred Kalhammer is a retired Foreign Service Officer and Stateline resident.

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