Changes in the culture of government secrecy have been accompanied by changes in the culture of national-security journalism. As respect for the secrecy system has waned, so too has regard within the press for protecting what the intelligence community regards as its crown jewels: details about the sources and methods of intelligence work. Today, even “top secret” material — defined by our government as information which, if disclosed, would “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” — appears with regularity in the pages of our leading newspapers.
The new willingness, even eagerness, of journalists to publish such sensitive information stems first and foremost from two cultural developments that have augmented the longstanding journalistic skepticism toward government justifications for secrecy. The first is the increasing prevalence of the libertarian notion — with adherents on both the left and right, and in both journalism and the federal bureaucracy — that “information should be free.” This ideology leaves room for almost no rationale for secrecy in government and is deeply skeptical of and angered by post-9/11 government surveillance practices.
The second development is the changing nature of the news business, with its fierce competition and intense pressure to be first to break a story. In deciding whether to publish leaked secrets in the face of government warnings to desist, news organizations seem to operate according to a logic reminiscent of Cold War nuclear strategy: If we don’t strike, one of our competitors will; the secret will be out in any event, so we might as well reap the rewards of launching first. Globalization has only added to the intensity of this competition. Foreign news organizations from a wide array of countries now have Washington bureaus staffed by journalists who are eager to break news by uncovering our government’s secrets. Their judgments about the effect of their stories on American security are, for obvious reasons, likely to differ significantly from the judgments of editors here at home.