Saturday, March 25, 2006

From security clearances to state-controlled press

SusanG interviews Daniel Ellsberg for the Daily Kos, and Daniel Ellsberg puts two and two together to draw some logical, if frightening, conclusions concerning American journalism (questions are in bold; the Bernstein article is about CIA control of American journalism in the mid-70’s; my emphasis is in red):

What do you think of the Judith Miller episode?

Their performance on the whole Judith Miller question from start to finish was just awful.

Now it was something I talked to you before about. Let me put it down on paper. Did you look at the Carl Bernstein piece?


Over 200 reporters, according to Bernstein, had signed secrecy agreements with the CIA. There were a number of individuals who did really work to put stories in that they wanted, to publish stuff they wanted. I believe that's what they were saying about Joe Alsop and Stewart Alsop, that they were essentially assets of the CIA, which means they would put out CIA line. Not because they were literal employees, but because they were friends with people in the CIA.”


“… Judith Miller said, I had a security clearance. Now I think she was telling the truth. They said, no, it was just a simple non-disclosure agreement or some misunderstanding, I think that's the cover story. She had a clearance. What would that mean?

It means that she's trusted by these people as one of the team. They're not giving it to her under threat, they're giving it to her because they trust her to carry this out. Wonderful self-esteem there and the feeling of being an insider, and your fellows don't have that. It means you will now get information that people who don't have that clearance will not get. You'll get it in part because you're trusted and because you have something to lose, they'll take it away. If you violate it, you won't get that stuff anymore. You infer from that that you will get information that others don't get because you'll be trusted not to print it unless they tell you it's all right.

My guess is very strongly that Judith Miller did have such a clearance and did have a background check and it meant that she was entitled to get information authoritatively that others were not entitled to get on the understanding that she has a lot to lose - namely a clearance - and not just the one source, but from a lot of sources. It gives her entrée. Take somebody who likes Judith Miller and would tell her all these things, he would tell her various background things. He liked Miller, he's an old friend of hers. That doesn't mean he could take her into a room and tell a subordinate or tell somebody else to show her a piece of paper. He couldn't do that. He'd be putting his neck on the line.

If she has a clearance, he could take her to a meeting, to a place, to anybody, and say, "This woman is okay, she's cleared."

I thought right away: Judith Miller, Judith Miller. She's one of Bernstein's people here. And remember, he says it was one of their most carefully guarded secrets that they had, that they kept the Church Committee from putting out. They gave them stuff on assassination instead; that was less scary.

In every case, Bernstein said, where a journalist had such an agreement, it was known to their boss - to their editor or publisher or both. So I infer from that that probably Bill Keller - possibly not - or Howell Raines, but certainly the publisher, Sulzberger, did know. Now let's go one step further. Bernstein quotes somebody at the CIA as saying, "Our greatest asset is the New York Times." All right.

My guess would be that much more likely than not that Judith Miller had clearance and I would infer from that there's a good possibility, one-third (I really think it's more than half) that the current publisher has a security clearance. Now you could say, the simple reaction to that could be well, all right, you know, he's in the news business for foreign affairs it might be good for him to be able to learn some secrets. But if you know the system, even without saying, "this is absolutely outrageous and horrible and intolerable" - you don't have to go that far - there are some real problems with that. And it has to do with a formal acceptance of being on the team. It goes beyond having lunch with these people and having the same social set. It's really very like being part of the government. I'm not saying it's clearly an instrument of the government all the time, but it might be an instrument of the government part of the time.

That's one thing for radicals to say as they do that they're all on the same team. But I'm sorry, I would not be happy to have it proved that the New York Times, which is the first thing I read every morning is, after all, a government newspaper. And obviously there are limitations to that because there's no question that they do put out from time to time things that the government does not want out. I can say that I know that better than most.”

The obvious difference from the 1970’s is that the part of the American government controlling the press is now the Pentagon and not (only) the CIA.  One could, of course, discuss whether Ellsberg’s theory on government control of the New York Times is itself an attempt to hide the fact that Miller and Sulzberger were really acting for Israeli interests, thus landing us back in the same old debate.