Who gets to feed from the trough of classified information?

Robert Naiman points out that the only reason we know that President Obama’s Afghan “progress” report is at variance with the reports coming from the intelligence community, is thanks to classified information being made public — without being declassified.

[T]he reason that we know that the collective assessments of the 16 US intelligence agencies give a very different picture than the “progress” story that the administration is presenting to the public today is that news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have reported on the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) for Afghanistan and Pakistan, even though the NIEs are classified.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday [my emphasis throughout the following]:

Two new assessments by the US intelligence community present a gloomy picture of the Afghanistan war, contradicting a more upbeat view expressed by military officials as the White House prepares to release a progress report on the 9-year-old conflict.

The classified intelligence reports contend that large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban, according to officials who were briefed on the National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which represent the collective view of more than a dozen intelligence agencies.

The reports, the subject of a recent closed hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee, also say Pakistan’s government remains unwilling to stop its covert support for members of the Afghan Taliban who mount attacks against US troops from the tribal areas of the neighboring nation. The officials declined to be named because they were discussing classified data.


Pakistan, which is due to receive $7.5 billion in US civilian aid over three years, denies secretly backing the Taliban. However, intelligence gathered by the US continues to suggest that elements of Pakistan’s security services arm, train and fund extremist militants, according to military and State Department documents disclosed this year by WikiLeaks.


Key members of Congress are watching the Obama strategy warily. “Our political and diplomatic efforts are not in line with our military efforts,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who is under consideration as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.” It may be time to consider a smaller troop footprint.”

Speaker-designate John Boehner announced yesterday that Rogers will indeed be chair.

The New York Times reported:

As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.


The findings in the reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military, and were provided last week to some members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The findings were described by a number of American officials who read the reports’ executive summaries.


The White House review comes as some members of Mr. Obama’s party are losing patience with the war. “You’re not going to get to the point where the Taliban are gone and the border is perfectly controlled,” said Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in an interview on Tuesday.

Mr. Smith said there would be increasing pressure from the political left on Mr. Obama to end the war, and he predicted that Democrats in Congress would resist continuing to spend $100 billion annually on Afghanistan.

Note that the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times cite unnamed officials, and then quote members of the Intelligence Committee. It’s a reasonable guess that Representative Rogers and Representative Smith are familiar with the contents of the NIEs, and that they are among the unnamed sources.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the White House/Pentagon review:

A White House review of President Obama’s year-old Afghan war strategy concluded that it is “showing progress” against al-Qaeda and in Afghanistan and Pakistan but that “the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable,” according to a summary document released early Thursday.


The overview of the long-awaited report contained no specifics or data to back up its conclusions. The actual assessment document is classified and will not be made public, according to an administration official who said that interested members of Congress would be briefed on it in January.

This example shows why we need journalism on classified information, including WikiLeaks. If the assessment of the 16 intelligence agencies is different from the White House/Pentagon review, the public need to know that in order to have an informed opinion.

Clearly there is a public need for access to classified information, but what we see here is the subtext to the WikiLeaks story. It is not about secrecy per ce; it is about the government’s ability to act as the gatekeeper of classified information, so that officials retain a measure of control over when such information is released and to whom.

Classified information is food for journalists and it is provided on mutually understood but unstated terms: that journalists thus rewarded will use the material in such a way that they can expect to continue being offered future rewards. WikiLeak’s “crime” is that it operates outside this circle of privileged access to information and thus robs government officials of a significant measure of the power through which they can manipulate the media.

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3 thoughts on “Who gets to feed from the trough of classified information?

  1. Norman

    The solution is quite simple. The U.S. should get out of every country that the Military is in today. Also, the C.I.A. Should do the same. Now, then we would save $$$$$’s of untold amounts, be able to rebuild the infrastructure of the U.S.A. not worry whether or not who’s doing what, let the Chinese or Russia or even the Israeli’s chase after the other countries, then who knows.

  2. Cherie Boeneman

    “Classified information is food for journalists and it is provided on mutually understood but unstated terms: that journalists thus rewarded will use the material in such a way that they can expect to continue being offered future rewards. ”

    My question is: Did you understand this in 1973 or learn it as a result of Watergate?

  3. seamus o'bannion

    Well, of course, now that we know this, we can be sure that the LA Times and the NY Times will be prosecuted under the Espionage Act too, right?

    They won’t?

    Well, at least the Washington Post will get a gold star for playing echo chamber.


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