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Most of the information that is funneled into the White House is protectively classified. This leaves the President free to manipulate the news, to release selectively those facts that make him look good. Through his press spokesmen, he controls most of the news that emanates from the White House. Even the leaks are usually orchestrated by his news managers, who siphon out unattributed stories calculated to serve the President.
I have a duty to report what the Government is doing, which is not always what the authorized spokesmen say it is doing. They will say only what the President wants them to say. I have learned to rely, therefore, on unauthorized sources. They are the professional civil servants whom the public never sees. They know what the intelligence reports really show and what the administration's policies really are. Some are willing to tell the truth, at great risk to themselves, because they believe their first loyalty should be to the citizens who pay them. The information these sources possess, and the documents they produce to back it up, are often the opposite of the kind of news that is officially leaked or passed at press conferences or printed in press releases.
Most of these documents, since they come from the backrooms and not the press offices, are classified. There is nothing sacred about the secrecy stamp, which our leaders use to censor disagreeable news and to protect themselves. For the people in power do not relish having their cozy relationships exposed, their sources of money bared, and their blunders brought to light. The last thing they want to read in their morning paper are stories about Government wrongs.
But given our democratic traditions, they cannot properly censor the news; so they simply classify it. They use the cloak of official secrecy to cover up their embarrassments. Only favorable news is freely distributed. Their mistakes and miscalculations, inefficiencies and injustices, the massive waste and incessant wrongdoing are swept under the secrecy label.
Yet the President does not hesitate to release classified information if it will win him support. Few military developments were more secret, for example, than the "invisible plane" which can elude enemy radar by absorbing its rays. Technicians had to agree to let the Government tap their telephones before they were allowed to work on the project. But President Carter was under fire for letting our military defenses lag; he needed a dramatic headline to persuade the voters that he had not neglected national security. He got the headline he wanted, thanks to some suspiciously opportune leaks about the new technology.
Undesirable leaks are abhorred by every administration. But in the matter of the ghostly flying machine, Defense Secretary Harold Brown not only confirmed the leaks but added triumphant details.
So the President, encumbered as he is by political biases and reelection anxieties, is not necessarily a good judge of security. But admittedly, newsmen also are not security experts, and the publication of military secrets is always a thorny question. What qualifies a lowly reporter to judge whether an old military venture is bound to end up in a catastrophe and whether to publish the plan before it becomes a fait accompli? Certainly I am not competent to outguess the Joint Chiefs. But I am in close touch with military experts whom the Joint Chiefs themselves consult. At the risk of appearing immodest, let me briefly review my record.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson decided to draw a line in Vietnam. But he needed an incident to build national solidarity. The opportunity came when Communist patrol boats, looking for ships that had raided the North Vietnamese coast, made a run against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. No one was hurt, no damage was done. A second dark-of-night attack probably never even occurred but was the deviation of faulty radar. With these dubious ingredients, Johnson created a phony incident and stepped firmly onto one of history's great banana peels.
I obtained secret naval documents, which gave me the evidence to report that the incident had been contrived. The Senate, nevertheless, gave President Johnson the resolution he sought as a license to expand America's role in the Vietnam war. Thus, an America conditioned to victories and happy endings blundered into a stalemated war from which there was no satisfactory exit. The war turned into a debacle so inextricable, so gloom-laden as to spoil the I-told-you-so's.
During the Richard Nixon regime, I continued to report war news that the President wanted to suppress. I reported in March 1971, that despite White House assurances that the war was being wound down, the Pentagon had prepared detailed plans for bombing North Vietnam and mining Haiphong Harbor. The story did not stop this final frenzy of warfare before the painful American withdrawal.
The following December, I reported that Richard Nixon was secretly supporting Pakistan in the India-Pakistan conflict and that he had ordered a carrier task force under wartime conditions into the battle zone. Top Soviet officials assured Indian leaders that any Chinese intervention would be offset by a Russian attack on China and that any moves by the American task force would be opposed by the Soviet fleet.
It seemed to me that Russia, China, and the United States were maneuvering dangerously near the edge of world war. Yet President Nixon never told Congress of the dangers but put out the word that America was keeping hands off. He personally advised the top leaders of the Senate and the House that his only interest was to bring peace. "We are neutral,” he said to them. "We are not taking sides.” This, I charged, was a lie. My stories hopefully helped persuade Nixon to back away from this crisis.
The stakes are enormously higher in the Persian Gulf, where the oil price explosion has brought tensions to a boil. Secret documents reveal that the late Shah of Iran was the dominant force behind the ruinous price increases. Washington had the leverage to pressure the Shah to join Saudi Arabia in its repeated offers to stop the price leap. Yet this was opposed by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who hoped the oil revenue would finance the Shah's arms buildup.
When I broke this story in 1976, an anguished Kissinger requested the right to dispute my evidence. So I showed his aide, William Hyland, a folder full of top-secret documents backing up the allegations. Hyland was aghast. "Someone must have given you the whole computer printout on this,” he said. It was the last I heard from Kissinger on the subject.
Last year, Jimmy Carter, a President in trouble, struggled to keep his equilibrium in the Iranian crisis. I reported that the President was preparing for military action, although the Soviets had 23 divisions just across the border ready to respond. The White House issued angry denials, though many of the details have now been confirmed. My source believes passionately that the United States does not have the military power to force a showdown in the Persian Gulf today, that now is a time to practice delicate diplomaсу.
The way an investigative reporter is compelled to operate, of course, is an imperfect system of news gathering. Sometimes the sources do not have all the details. Sometimes the jigsaw pieces of information do not form a complete picture and the missing pieces are buried too deeply. Investigative reporters must work without the power of subpena. They lack the money and manpower that the Government can marshall to counter their efforts.
They must also work harder, dig deeper, and verify their facts more carefully than reporters who follow the official line. Preposterous lies can be told to make the powerful look good; grievous blunders can be committed by officials in the name of the Government; the public can be cheated by men sworn to uphold the public trust. But let an investigative reporter make a mistake, and there are howls of outrage.
From time to time, I have found myself the object of certain discomforting attentions. My house has been under surveillance by men with binoculars in parked cars. The CIA has dispatched radio cars to tail people from my office. A CIA camera crew has photographed visitors at my door; an electronics crew has eavesdropped on my conversations. The FBI has seized my telephone records; tax agents have searched my financial records; the Pentagon has conducted one investigation after another of me.
Persons within the Government, suspected of having contact with me, have been subjected to phone taps, lie detector tests, and other indignities. In their zeal to discover my sources, Federal agencies have not balked at violating U.S. law.
Alexander Solzehnitsyn has written: "For a country to have a great writer is like having another government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers." We in America have evolved an entire institution to undertake the mission that in a tyranny falls to the lonely genius and hero.
What is this mission? To give the people an alternative to the official version of things, a rival account of reality, a measure by which to judge the efficacy of rules and whether the truth is in them.
Long ago, the role of the village editor and dissenting pamphleteer-as monitor, arbiter, critic, and rival of the politician-was imbedded as a fundamental of the American system. It was of this role that Thomas Jefferson spoke in his eternally repeatable declaration that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would take his morning paper.
To quote Winston Churchill, "A thousand years scarce served to form a state." The patriotism of other peoples-based on common geography, pride of ethnic origin, common religion, the memories of great things done together-is not available to Americans in any substantial sense.
Whatever patriotism may be to Germans or Russians or Frenchmen, it is something different to Americans who are a scattering of peoples from other lands, of refugees from other systems of government with no common denominator of religion, geography, ethnic origin, constantly mobile. Patriotism cannot be anchored in the old homogentities and must revolve around common adherence to a distinct set of ideas.
These are the ideas expounded by Thomas Jefferson and popularized further by Abraham Lincoln, concerning the rights of the people-to know, to dissent, to be treated equally, to rule themselves, to run their government processes, to be the judges of government and not just the subjects. It is this fragile nucleus of Amerian distinctiveness that lends nobility to the endeavor of the investigative reporter, which raises it above its grubby appearances.
This concept of patriotism is in direct confrontation with the Hohenzollern version we hear every day from on high-that the national interest is embodied in the particular administration in office, that it is damaged by disparaging Government leaders, exposing scandals, creating a spirit of cynicism toward the Government.
Now once again, those who govern us are maneuvering to restrict our right to know what they are doing. The Central Intelligence Agency is quietly withdrawing back into its shell. The administration has asked you to pass laws that will discourage unauthorized leaks and punish the leakers in subtle ways that, at the same time, will not alarm the public. You are assembled here today to explore how you can revoke elements of the Freedom of Information Act.
Yet the technology of espionage has reached such a wonderous state that the United States and the Soviet Union regularly intercept one another's most secret communications. Unfortunately, no laws passed or repealed by Congress can stymie the Russians' allseeing spy satellites and all-hearing monitoring devices.
Yet of late, both governments have intensified their security routines. Since they cannot keep secrets from each other, who are they trying to hide their operations from? The deepdown truth is that both governments are really afraid of their own people. They are driven, therefore, to draw a curtain of secrecy between their internal operations and the people they are supposed to serve.
The millions who compose our own permanent Government, in their heart of hearts, are at odds with democracy. They prefer to exercise their permeating power from the obscurity of the cubicle, shuffling Government forms and issuing edicts. They abhor conflict, which disrupts the smooth implementation of their plans and procedures. They embrace secrecy because what is not known cannot be disrupted.
Unhappily the politicians, once they come to power, are inclined to adopt the secretive ways of the bureaucrats. For the politician in office does not want his acts and policies to reach the people through what he considers the distorting prism of the press. What he wants known, he would prefer to communicate directly through more tightly controlled mechanisms.
Thus, both the politician and the bureaucrat usually join in embracing government censorship. They dare not call it censorship, since censorship is intolerable in a free society. So they call it security. They not only use their classification powers to censor the news but seek added restrictions on the public's right to know. Under the banner of national security, they are now assaulting the Freedom of Information Act and clamoring for stricter security laws.
I welcome the opportunity to speak up for the Freedom of Information Act. Those who do not want the American people to know what their Government is doing seem determined to destroy what has become one of the most effective tools the public has to pry information out of our secretive bureaucrats.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this landmark legislation. I need only remind you that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act helped to uncover such scandals as Watergate, the My Lai massacre, domestic spying by the CIA, and the use of the Internal Revenue Service for political purpose by the Nixon administration.
There are literally thousands more cases of misbehavior that were exposed-or confirmed-by the Freedom of Information Act. And there is a common thread that runs through all of them: The illegal or improper acts exposed by the law had been covered up to protect Government officials from embarrassment. That is the important point to remember. There was no question of national security, only political security. The principal purpose of our security system is to protect Government officials from embarrassment.
In my 34 years of exposing malfeasance and misfeasance in Washington, I have discovered that the "Secret" stamp is used to protect national security in merely a fraction of cases. Most often, it is used to hide mistakes that involve nothing more than the job security of foolish or corrupt public officials-or the mistakes that insecure officials fear they might make. The Freedom of Information Act has made it harder for the wrongdoers and incompetents to cover up their misdeeds—and that is the real reason they are so eager to pull its teeth.
They can wrap themselves in the flag. They can cry “National Security!” They can offer a dozen other hifalutin reasons for amending the act. But what they are really afraid of is that the public may find out they often waste the taxpayers' money and abuse the power we have given them.
I sense that we are slipping into an era when Government secrecy becomes invested with the halo of national survival and public tolerance is at a low ebb. This is always a time of extra hazard for those who keep a watch on Government. The investigative reporter must expect, though of course he does not, to be widely reviled, especially by the highest authorities of the Nation. He becomes aware that he survives only because of the thin protective shield of the Constitution and an inconstant public sentiment that he is of some vague use to society.