- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

In the past several months, many media outlets, including New Yorker magazine and The Washington Post, have published articles disclosing information about previously classified U.S. military and counterterrorist operations. The Post last week reported on a book that revealed, among other classified issues, the code names of secret U.S. bases in Jordan. The Post’s Dana Priest also wrote a piece on Dec. 27 revealing the tail number of a government aircraft allegedly used by the intelligence community to shuttle terrorist suspects around the globe. Seymour Hersh, in the New Yorker, reported the Bush administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions in Iran.

The Hersh disclosure prompted some strong rebukes from other writers. David Frum, in the National Review Online wrote, “Can you count how many vital national security secrets — secrets that could potentially get U.S. personnel killed — have been betrayed in just this one article by serving and former agents of the CIA or by serving and former military officers?” Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of The Washington Times, summed up the troubling trend well in a recent column: “We are getting ever more used to ever more egregious government leaks of military secrets. What’s the big deal? Maybe I am an alarmist. Or maybe we are sleepwalking toward the abyss.”

While the debate will no doubt continue in journalistic circles, we wanted to ask the question to a broader audience. How does a free press, combined with the proliferation of news outlets, affect the prosecution of the war on terror from the standpoint of voters? Clearly, Americans vigorously support a free press. But is today’s complex brew of changing technology, the economics of the media business and ideological shifts among news organizations causing voters to rethink how news organizations can and should approach the war on terror. While our data from a single survey cannot answer the question fully, the results are indeed revealing.

When asked “Do you think media coverage of the war on terror helps, hurts, or has no impact of the effort?” 58 percent of voters said it hurt the effort, while a meager 20 percent believed the media helps. (Dutko Worldwide Research and Polling, national survey conducted between Aug. 19 to Aug. 22, 800 registered voters, margin of error +/-3.5 percent.)

Voters were also asked to choose between the following two statements: “It’s important to tell the public about breaking up terrorist plots as they occur to build confidence about winning the war on terror”; or “Certain actions should be kept secret to catch more terrorists, even if it means not revealing the results of every anti-terrorist action.” Overwhelmingly, voters chose to keep certain news secret. When it comes to anti-terrorist operations, a full 80 percent prefer discretion over full-bar disclosure the media is so fond of.

It’s not clear what, if anything, can or should be done about the impact of a voracious news media letting the wrong people know about anti-terrorist strategies and tactics. What is clear, however, is that the public is not clamoring to know more and most would be satisfied receiving a little less information in exchange for catching some more bad guys.

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