To Keep it a Secret or Leak it?

JP LOUGHRAN: Here is what you should know about Monday night’s panelist-led conversation in Gaston Hall, including unexpected questions from an FBI agent in the audience.

The dangers of the national security card:

  • The panelists spoke to the dangers that arise when an administration too frequently cites National Security issues as a means of not providing the public with information.

  • They agreed that there are times where National Security concerns are valid and information should be withheld from the public; however, they were skeptical about how often the executive branch invokes such a line of logic.

  • According to Carrie Cordero, CNN Analyst and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law, “The danger of national security being unjustly used, or misusing the national security card, is using that as a justification for a whole host of things.” She said the overuse “unlevels legitimate concerns when there is real national security we have to deal with.”

It’s time to modernize:

  • The discussion also centered on how national security practices could be updated. Especially the system under which information gets classified. As Carrie Cordero put it, “The classification system is begging for modernization.”

  • Jameel Jaffer, Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, argued the executive branch should not be left alone in deciding what is to be considered a matter of national security. He advocated instead for allowing the judicial branch to enter such a process in order to serve as a check against the executive.

  • “You can’t argue in court for your case for public good because of the Espionage Act. That seems to me a problem,” Jaffer said. “More broadly as problem because it deprives the public of information.”

  • Martin Baron spoke to the atmosphere of fear created within the government in regards to speaking about issues. “People are afraid they will be prosecuted or pushed down to lower departments… they are concerned about being an object of suspicion,” he said.  

Former FBI agent in Audience sparks debate:

  • The night took an interesting turn when a former FBI agent in the audience, previously based on Guantanamo Bay, asked for the microphone during the question and answer period. He specifically spoke to emails he wrote to upper level FBI officials documenting and disagreeing with forms of interrogation taking place on the island.

  • This sparked a discussion between the agent and panelists over the differences between reporting incidents through the chain of command and whistleblowing. Jameel Jaffer, in the midst of a tense exchange with the agent recalled his emails, said “the emails you wrote were not acted on until it was made known to the public.” Jaffer said it was when such reports reached the public that Congress started to act.

The importance of good, skeptical, active citizens

  • Martin Baron, the Executive Editor of The Washington Post, took the last word of the night, speaking about the importance of public skepticism and the need to question the government. After paraphrasing some of James Madison’s greatest hits from the Federalists Papers, he left the audience with the message that the public should serve as a check on government and that the press should serve as a vehicle to help such an active citizenry check their government when needed.

Other panelists included Alberto Mora, General Council of the Navy under President George W. Bush, and Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning Filmmaker and journalist. This event was sponsored by Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project, The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Knight Foundation, and the Press Freedom Defense Fund. There was also on campus support from The Hoya and The Lecture Fund of Georgetown University.

JP Loughran is a Junior in the College, studying Government. He previously interned on Capitol Hill for Rep. Jim Himes (D- Ct.) and joined On the Record as a writer and an editor.

Max Magid