In the aftermath of the SEAL Team Six raid on Osama Bin Laden, I reported, based on two sources, that an advanced surveillance drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, had prowled above the scene in Pakistan, undetected by the country's radar and air defense surveillance systems. No one picked up on this nugget, which was relatively unimportant in the scheme of things, until the Washington Post advanced the story: that drone had been back and forth across the Afghanistan border quite frequently, helping CIA officers and agents on the ground map out Abbottabad. The Post noted that I had first reported the use of the drone.
Moments after the article was published online, I received an e-mail from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. In effect, he accused me of being too cavalier with government secrets. I was abusing my privilege as a national security journalist.
Initially, I thought he was a grump.
But then, as I reviewed his argument, I came to agree with him. I was wrong; that detail was better left unpublished, at least in the immediate aftermath of the raid, when tensions between Pakistan and the United States were sharp. Better to let it marinate and put it out when I had more context and could figure out what it was going. The goal -- my goal -- is to tell you what I know. If what I know is confusing, incomplete and not especially revelatory, AND if it involves classified information, it's often better to wait, consult, and ask more questions.
You can read the full story in my new book, Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, which, because I nervously checked, actually is in bookstores across America.
National security journalists have a good gig going. And part of the job includes publishing information that the government wants to keep secret. The book, co-authored with D.B. Grady, has plenty of that type of information. But it is foolhardy to print first and then consider whether the government's equities are legitimate later. Most good national security reporters do their diligence, which often winds up delaying stories. This isn't self-censorship; most of the time, the stuff gets published. But often, and I do mean often, the government will make a good case as to why a certain detail or even a word would be, if published by an authoritative news source, deleterious to national security. And sometimes, and these are the cases I especially pay attention to, they make the case that American soldiers and intelligence officers will be harmed by the publication of a detail.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How the South's ugly racial history is haunting ObamaCare
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- If Democrats abandon immigration reform after Tuesday's likely loss, they will turn 2016 into a debacle
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- What if Leo Strauss was right?
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Feast your eyes on this beautiful linguistic family tree
- Stop making fun of philosophy and read some philosophy
Subscribe to the Week