WaPo’s Dana Priest examines increase of secrecy after 9/11

Dana Priest, The Washington Post, and Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein Center Director.
Dana Priest, The Washington Post, and Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein Center Director.

September 11, 2012 – On the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Shorenstein Center welcomed Dana Priest, national security reporter for The Washington Post, to discuss the cost of secrecy and how it affects the relationship between media and government.

In his introduction, Shorenstein Center Director Alex Jones mentioned the New York Times op-ed by Kurt Eichenwald, about the warnings that the Bush administration received in the days and months before the 9/11 attacks. The article highlighted, he said, the difficulties of secrecy and the complicated implications.

Priest opened her talk by posing the question, “What is supposed to be secret?” Her answer was that the U.S. government defines secrets as information that, if revealed, “would do damage to national security.”

After the 9/11 attacks secrecy increased by large margins, Priest said.  Because the CIA was smaller and thus more flexible and “nimble,” they were better able to “get boots on the ground” first, before the Defense Department could formulate a military plan of action, Priest explained. And because the CIA is “by nature covert,” she continued, the operation “set in place a regime of secrecy. ”

Tension between the media and government, while always important, Priest noted, intensified after 9/11 because of the increased secrecy. The government was “actively trying to intimidate the media into not reporting things,” she said, and so it became more difficult for the media to cover the operation. Also, the patriotism of journalists was “called into question” if they questioned the government’s stated positions. Underlying all of the media coverage, she pointed out, were “administration surrogates” that perpetuated a “drumbeat about how evil the media is because they’re revealing secrets.”

Priest concluded by outlining the devastating effects of secrecy. First, she said, “nothing secret remains on course” because of a lack of accountability. Second, secrecy makes it more difficult for people with dissenting views to stand up to the majority. Third, she said, “money and waste increase with secrecy,” as spending is allowed to go “hog-wild.” Finally, a secret operation is dangerous because “nothing big and controversial ever remains secret.”

By Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.
Photos by Heather McKinnon Glennon, Shorenstein Center.