Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Leaks and Unnamed Sources

The Oregonian published a page one story Sunday titled "U.S. kept terror plot tightly under wraps". The article, released by the LA Times-Washington Post Service, was on the recent terror plot to blow up jetliners. I have not been able to find an online link, so here are some key parts of the text written by Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu:

The homeland security secretary [Michael Chertoff] discreetly asked subordinates about plans developed months or even years ago, focused on avaiation safety, threat levels and other minutiae. In briefings, he quizzed staffers about responses to an aviation threat: What was the default plan for going to "orange alert"? What items can we ban from airplanes if we need to?

Those taking the questions--including many of Chertoff's closest aides--had no idea what was really going on, according to two senior counterterrorism officials.

Chertoff's stealthy information-gathering was just one example of the U.S. government's secretive response to an emerging terrorist plot. . . . [emphasis mine]

The story cites two negative effects of the secrecy:

1. Airport and security personnel who would have to implement any plan were not given advance warning.

Until the last hours, details of the British investigation were confined to a limited coterie of U.S. Cabinet members and seniors officials, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who were involved or have since been briefed. The approach ensured that no advance word of the operation leaked out--but also meant airlines, airports and even the Transportation Security Administration had only a few hours to ramp up sweeping new measures after being alerted to the threat late Wednesday night. [emphasis mine]

2. Some officials were irritated about not being told details before they were publicly released.

"Several sources suggested last week that the extensive secrecy irritated some officials who were kept out of the loop at intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but declined to discuss the missions in detail. Michael Jackson, Homeland Security's deputy secretary, said the secrecy "wasn't controversial. It was operational security." [emphasis mine]

Even though reporters Eggan and Hsu questioned whether high security was really necessary about "rudimentary details", they did cite two reasons for that security.

1. The first was "operational security" quoted above. In order to stop the bad guys you need to make sure that information about the investigation doesn't compromise the ability to stop the entire network.

2. U.S. officials were concerned in this case not to repeat the sort of leaks about British information on the 2005 subway bombing that had "strained relations":

Even now, three days after British authorities arrested 24 suspects--and two days after most of the suspects have been publicly named--U.S. officials are tight-lipped about the most rudimentary details of the case, citing strict British secrecy laws and a desire to avoid the strained relations that followed U.S. leaks about the 2005 subway bombings. [emphasis mine]

What's strange (as highlighted in the above passages) is the secrecy the reporters use in identifying their sources. Only three named sources are cited in the lengthy article, but unnamed sources appear again and again to substantiate facts in the story. In addition to those noted above:

- one senior U.S. law enforcement official said
- according to several law enforcement officials
- officials said
- sources have said
- according to intelligence and law enforcement officials
- one official said
- aides said
- officials said
- one U.S. counterterrorism official said
- officials said
- One U.S. official said
- according to several U.S. officials
- some officials said
- one official said
- Officials said
- officials said

One can understand why reporters might not want to list the names of all the people involved in interviews with "more than a dozen people", but to have so many facts dependent on unnamed officials, aides and sources is sloppy reporting at the least and leaves the door open for Jayson Blair-type inventive reporting.

The need for secrecy in counterterrorism investigations is obvious. It is made even more obvious by the number of leaks which compromise investigations as with the British subway bombing investigation cited above or the NY Times exposures of NSA monitoring of international calls and e-mails and the bank data program.

Aside from the question of the need for governmental secrecy on national defense issues, the style of this article raises the question of the lack of transparency by the press on sources used in reporting. Unnamed sources don't cut it.

Further, there is a blending of gossip ("irritated" officials) and hard fact. Feelings are cited as being newsworthy and having a bearing on the substantive issues involved.

One cannot help but wonder if unnamed sources and "irritations" are more a reflection of the reporters own biases than of the content of the story being reported. The mainstream media keeps shooting itself in the foot on credibility.


Ken said...

It's no wonder Chertoff et.al. didn't want to spill the beans -- with the number of anonymous sources in that story, it's apparent that any slip by Chertoff would have resulted in some Homeland Security staffer running to a reporter. The terror plot would have ended up on the front page of the New York Times days or weeks before UK officials could round up all the terrorists who were involved, thus tipping off the bad guys to run back to Pakistan before getting arrested. Escaping arrest would mean living to plot another 9/11 down the road. If I were Chertoff, I wouldn't tell my dog.

terrance said...

I think you're absolutely on target, Ken. All those unnamed sources lead one to believe that there are way too many people willing to leak information in our top intelligence and enforcement positions.

Thanks for the comment.