How to Approach Limitations of Freedom of the Press

Amitai Etzioni discusses balancing national security and press freedom one year after Edward Snowden leaks.

June 2, 2014

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It’s been a year since NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the press. The revelations and a subsequent investigation by the U.S. government have prompted debates throughout the country about the limits of freedom of the press when reporting information threatens national security.
Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies Amitai Etzioni recently published “A Liberal Communitarian Approach to Security Limitations on the Freedom of the Press” in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal. In his article, he outlines the ways to protect the public’s right to know and the press’s right to publish. He spoke with George Washington Today about his approach and how to balance the conflict.
Q: How did Snowden’s leaks expose the dichotomy between the government’s desire to preserve national security and the freedom of the press? 
A: The Obama administration's efforts to deter and punish leakers, including by investigating journalists, have been widely criticized by the media, civil libertarians and liberals as an “unprecedented” attack on press freedom. Government officials argue that such efforts are necessary, as the Snowden and other recent leaks expose agents and operations that are critical to national security—a perspective to which the media pays little attention. Rejecting this polarizing form of public debate, my point is that national security and press freedom are both legitimate claims and call for a civil compromise through moral dialogue—the “liberal communitarian” approach. 
Q: What is the liberal communitarian approach, and how can we achieve what you refer to as a “communitarian balance”?
A: The current legal framework on national security and the press—in which newspaper editors have complete authority to publish secrets, the press relies heavily on leaks for information and the government holds extensive powers to prosecute leakers but fears a media backlash—is no longer viable. Instead, government and media should cooperate to "narrow the gap" between national security and press freedom. Congress and relevant agencies should take measures to reduce excessive secrecy and protect legitimate whistleblowers, enabling the press to report on vital issues without resorting to illegal channels. Congress should also revise its September 2001 authorization of military force, recognizing that terrorism remains a serious threat, which means leaks relevant to counterterrorism efforts do more harm to national security than the media admits. 
Q: Your article also discusses who ultimately has the authority to make decisions about publishing sensitive information. What are your thoughts here?
A: Taking into account the rise of new media and editors’ lack of national security expertise, editorial review of the publication of secrets should be reformed. A special court or a panel of experts might mediate between the press and the government on the most sensitive issues. The American Society of Newspaper Editors should set norms that define what state secrets editors can ethically publish—and which they should ban publishing, including the names of CIA agents and details about ongoing military operations. They should also grant the government an opportunity to explain why publishing the information leaked to the media would harm the nation. Furthermore, in this era of new media and citizen journalism, anyone can claim they are an editor, and hence some new norms and procedures must be set—including a licensing of who can claim to be an editor—or else any national secret that is leaked by a future Snowden will be published by someone. These issues should be reviewed by a respected, bipartisan, civilian review board to preempt calls for excessive transparency. 
Q: Moving forward, do you think the conflict between freedom of the press and national security will look the same in the event that leaks occur in the future, or are there lessons the American government will (or already has) take away from situations like Snowden's?
A: All of the above measures combined will not remove the need for a moral dialogue about the principles the nation should embrace. Both sides of the national security/press freedom debate must stop engaging in one-sided advocacy and recognize that both principles are vital. Moral dialogues have space for strong beliefs and foundational values and tend to be passionate and disorderly, but when successful, they create shared understandings that are of great benefit to society.