BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In an internal memo released to Congress this week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld inveighed against leaks to the press. He said they cost "the lives of Americans" and diminished, quote, "our country's chance for success" in the war on terror. Rumsfeld's memo followed reports in the New York Times written by Eric Schmitt that outlined in surprising detail plans for a future U.S. invasion of Iraq. We're joined by Scott Armstrong, founder of the National Security Archive and occasional OTM "leakologist." Scott, welcome back to the show.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: It's good to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, you've seen Secretary Rumsfeld's July 12th memo. What do you make of it?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: July 12th - Rumsfeld is sending around to his senior staff a reminder to get your people under control -- the classified information is not to be leaked - the impact of leaks can have major consequences. It was attached to a CIA memo that was written in the middle of June which he'd seen in the middle of June. That memo dealt with Al Qaeda and the fact that Al Qaeda makes use of information it reads in the press in defeating counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities of the government. If that had been the critical point, it would have been circulated by Rumsfeld in the middle of June. It wasn't. It was in the middle of July, and it was because of that Schmitt article that occurred on July 5th. That article on the 5th bothered him, but he couldn't identify it specifically -- at least not in an unclassified memo cause it would tend to confirm that article. So by sending this out in unclassified form, he was absolutely certain this would leak and get out in the press within 4 days -- and it did.
BOB GARFIELD: Was this story from the New York Times clearly leaked by the administration?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG:The July 5th story by Eric Schmitt was part of a sequence of stories that the New York Times and other newspapers have been doing about the debate on policy over what to do in Iraq inside the administration. Schmitt had previously done a story that was a back and forth between the Pentagon and the State Department and to a lesser extent the NSC about different strategies that they had. The story played fairly significantly in May as a kind of hawks versus doves scenario on Iraq. I think that was probably incorrect, and this story was an attempt by somebody inside the government to put the emphasis back on the fact that this is really a debate between hawks and hawks -- I'm again over-simplifying - but between people who want to do something about Iraq and they have very conventional ways of doing it -- surrounding them - toppling the regime with just sheer military power as opposed to a second plan which was to do something more-- subtle that involves special forces, involved taking out air defenses, involved more air strikes.
BOB GARFIELD:By getting involved in this games of "leaksmanship" and not actually writing the straightforward story as you've described it, are the media just being used by the government and the leakers within it?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: The media is always used. It is in fact a "medium" of communications for the government, and what we forget is that most people in the government learn most of their sensitive national security information in context from the media -- not from internal reports. Congress-- their - the majority of their information comes to them through the press! They're, they're not - there aren't very many of them that are getting sensitive, classified briefings that are e-- at the level of what they would get by reading the daily newspaper. It is a -- not a game - it's just a process.
BOB GARFIELD:When reporters write stories that are based substantially on leaks, sanctioned or otherwise, should there be some sort of disclosure or disclaimer box that says that you are witnessing Kabuki Theatre. Please understand that things are not necessarily as they appear and don't jump to all the obvious conclusions?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: There should be a disclosure in general that's understood by readers. I don't think [LAUGHS] you can write it out -- it would take too much of the, the front page of the paper to put it all in -- if you read the Schmitt article there are clues about the nature of the source. He's gone to some effort to not reveal what agency the source is from --"that's familiar with the document" -- which would lead me to believe that it may not be the Pentagon. If you say a Pentagon source gave it to you, that gives you a lot more suspects than somewhere else. So among the press and among certain people in government there is in fact a lexicon that - where we understand - we can kind of look up and say well this probably came from so and so or this reflects this argument. The problem is the readers aren't apprised of that and unless you're reading 4 or 5 newspapers and unless you have the time when you read 4 or 5 newspapers on a topic to go back and read the previous one or two months or maybe even longer period of coverage to find out why different reporters are reporting on different things, what the nature of their sources are, it's very difficult to put a value on it. It's very much like raw intelligence.
BOB GARFIELD:If there's, you know, 5 or 600 people inside the Beltway who can read the hieroglyphs and everybody else is just taking the stories at face value, is this kind of journalism, leak-based journalism, fundamentally a disservice to readers who are not getting the messages that are imbedded in the journalism?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: When secrecy controls so much information, leak-based journalism is at once both the only [LAUGHS] way to get the information and a disservice, because it allows manipulation; it increases the value of any one bureaucrat's information -- because they can control what they let out -- and they can let the story out in various ways. The public doesn't necessarily understand that. You're right. It's up to the press and very difficult judgments are made. There's some times where you'll get a leaker; he's got the right information; and you won't publish it. You, you think there's something wrong here. You'll find out there's an internal dispute -- the person didn't get the promotion -- and you won't publish it. It's a very delicate balance. When, in moments like the War on Terrorism when people want to use that as an excuse to get that much more secrecy, sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately, it's the most dangerous period for us because we're easily spun by any information we can get at all.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Scott Armstrong, as always, thank you very much.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD:Scott Armstrong is a Washington journalist and author, co-chair of a monthly dialogue between the media and the intelligence community on unauthorized disclosures and On the Media's occasional "leakologist." [MUSIC]