Out of the Dark Corner

Can journalists be trusted to serve as overseers of sensitive government operations?

In a September speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said he has "very deep respect for journalists and for their profession." But then he devoted a healthy chunk of his address to critiquing media coverage of the agency.

"Just as they report on the terrorists, it's the job of journalists to report on how the war against terrorism is being fought," Hayden said. "And when their spotlight is cast on intelligence activities, sound judgment and a thorough understanding of all the equities at play are critically important. Revelations of sources and methods, or what seems to me to be an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room, can make it very difficult for us to do our vital work.

"On their own, journalists often simply don't have all the facts needed to make the call on whether [intelligence] information can be released without harm," Hayden said.

But then he went on to set up something of a Catch-22. The CIA, he said, often can't give reporters the information they need to make informed judgments. "When the media claims an oversight role on our clandestine operations, it does so in an arena where we cannot clarify, explain or defend our actions without doing further damage to our sources and methods," he said.

So who exactly should play the watchdog role? The agency's true overseers, Hayden said, are in Congress, which has "full access to our operations and takes our security requirements into account." He noted that this year alone, CIA officers have testified at 57 congressional hearings, responded to 29 legislative requests for information, answered 1,140 "questions for the record" and given more than 500 briefings to members of Congress and their staffs.

So what is a working journalist to make of Hayden's remarks? It's painful to say, but first, he has a point about how reporters in general cover the operations of the federal government -- and the defense, homeland security and intelligence communities in particular. More than a few have a knee-jerk tendency to drag what agencies do to the "darkest corner of the room." In many newsrooms, if the story is about government, it's about waste, fraud, abuse and malfeasance.

That said, let's be honest: Historically, the CIA and other agencies have played a role in fostering cynicism among journalists (and the public at large) through their own performance. Earlier this year, for example, the agency released a 700-page document from 1973 known as the "Family Jewels," detailing activities that in the CIA's own delicate description were deemed to be "inconsistent with the agency's charter."

Journalists don't have the same kind of oversight role that Congress does, but they do have a part to play in looking into the activities of any federal agency -- and one that is protected constitutionally, by the way. Reporters shouldn't cede that role to legislators or anyone else. That's because it's simply not unheard of that the people's representatives on Capitol Hill would be complicit in an effort to keep vital information about federal operations from the public without valid reason.

In a democracy, it's hard to envision a scenario in which too much attention is paid to the operations of government -- and it's easy to envision dangerous scenarios in which too little attention is allowed to be paid.

Those of us who cover the operations of government on a regular basis know that it can be a maddening, frustrating exercise. And it requires a seriousness of purpose, because the issues at play are rarely easy to grasp. Obviously, intelligence in particular is an area that cries out for responsible journalism, and while that's not a rare commodity these days, it's certainly in shorter supply than it ought to be.

So what can the CIA do to help ensure that it gets responsible, fair coverage? The same thing that any agency ought to do -- provide reporters with the information they need and explain as fully and completely as possible the need to keep certain details under wraps. That won't make every reporter happy, but it will help the good ones do their jobs better.

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