Getting to know Visiting Journalist Scott Shane
LF: How did you get into journalism?
SS: I went to Williams College in Massachusetts, majored in English. I got a fellowship to study at Oxford University and got another degree in English literature…I also studied Russian…and I had studied in Russia and I wanted to go back there. And that’s what really ended up drawing me into journalism, was wanting to find some way to go and live in Russia…And because I had not done journalism in high school, I had not done journalism in college, I was sort of starting from zero, and I got a news clerk job at the Washington Star…But when you had finished your clerical duties you were allowed to write stories…So I used those clips to get a job at the Greensboro, North Carolina paper…Then got a job at the Baltimore Sun, and I stayed there for 20 years and…I covered courts, medicine, I was the Moscow correspondent…What first drew me to NSA was the realization after I came back from Russia that I knew more about the KGB…than I knew about NSA, which was extremely secretive, and which actually is the largest American intelligence agency and, probably with the exception of China, it may be the largest in the world…And nobody knew anything about it…So it was sort of the Russian thing that lead me to NSA, which lead me to national security intelligence more generally and then 9/11 sort of focused everybody’s attention on those kinds of issues. So then…I went to the Times' Washington Bureau and have covered…national security issues since then.
LF: How do you gauge the level of security risk in printing certain names and intelligence? How do you decide what to censor and what not to?
SS: It’s sort of a case by cases basis, I guess you could say, but to use [the article “Inside a 9/11 Mastermind’s Interrogation”] as an example, the question was whether to name this interrogator, Deuce Martinez, and he, through the CIA, asked us not to, saying he would be put at risk. And so then we had to answer the question of how realistic it was to think that he would be put at greater risk…by being named in the paper…He had put his name…his home address…his profession as intelligence officer on a public website at his alma mater and so he didn’t seem to have hidden his affiliation with CIA. Now he hadn’t said “I interrogated Khalid Shaikh Mohammed”…But I think in some ways the larger issue was does Al Qaeda have a history of targeting people by name because of certain things they have done. And there are lots of people who have played roles like his in the campaign against terrorism since 9/11, who have spoken publicly about their roles…And to my knowledge there’s never been an attack or an attempted attack of a plotted attack upon any of those people…We did withhold some information…He goes by “Deuce,” but that’s a nickname and all the paperwork is under his formal name…And I took out some details that, frankly, I didn’t want to take out…So, in our minds it was a bit of a compromise. They weren’t happy about it.
LF: Do you find that in reporting issues of national security you end up breaking a lot of ties, publishing things people would rather you didn’t?
SS: No, I think I’d say in general the folks who work in these agencies know they have to deal with the press and they understand and accept, to some degree, the contentious nature of the relationship between the press and the government in this country. Any American who thinks about it will know that you don’t want a cozy relationship between the press and the government…There are times when an agency, usually CIA, has asked us not to print something and we’ve listened to their argument and we have not printed it…So, it’s sort of a two-way street…you have experience that you gain over time with how real or unreal [the risk of printing is]…but you do it with trepidation…I had very mixed feelings about naming the guy. Because in some ways at an emotional level…even if it’s not a realistic fear…you kind of want to say sure. But that particular story would not have run without his name…So it’s also, how important is the story? Is the story telling people things that it’s important for them to know? So, it’s a big balancing act. It’s not one, though, that we should never take too casually.
What is the relationship between the reporting distributed from an established and reputable news source such as The New York Times and the exposure of primary source material made public through Wikileaks? Is there any similarity between these two means of investigation and publication?
SS: Well the funny thing about Wikileaks…is that they began…with a manifesto… “the mainstream media is in the pocket of the government and we’re going to be this alternative source that will give people the straight facts from the documents themselves”…so they were kind of radicals in a way…What’s been interesting to see is that they have become much more conservative. Once they really got…this huge cache of many different kinds of documents…allegedly from this guy Bradley Manning, the private who’s locked up now, that put them on the map and got people talking. And even…since [then] they have become much more like a mainstream media organization…for example, they got 250,000 cables in May or June of the last year…and they’ve got the technology to put them all up unedited on the website the next day…They didn’t do that, and as of today…only about three percent of those cables are public…they were replicating the redactions that we and other newspapers make...the contrast that you might have imagined being able to draw between The New York Times, this sort of old traditional old media…versus the kind of nouveau radial web-oriented guys who just throw it all up there, that distinction has become almost less extant…they recognize that it’s not just evil government crimes that government secrecy covers up, although there’s undoubtedly some of that, but it’s the name of a human rights activist in China who talked to the American embassy about Chinese politics, and who, if you name them, will go to prison…the government didn’t want us to publish any of them. So we had to distinguish between things that they didn’t want us to publish, but we felt fine publishing, versus…[things that would] affect national security. In that case, we kind of balanced it and ran the cables without taking anything out. It doesn’t mean you listen to the government and do what they say.
LF: Bradley Manning is in custody for allegedly leaking these cables. Is there any sort of legal action the CIA can take against Wikileaks for the publication of classified documents?
SS: If it’s a Chinese human rights activist who gets named in a cable and it goes up on the Wikileaks site and that guy gets arrested, there’s no recourse, other than public shame…There’s a very important distinction there. [Bradley Manning] had security clearance. He had signed an oath saying he would protect secrecy…so, that is a very clear-cut crime. Whatever you think about his political motivation, whether he had justification, it’s a crime. It hasn’t be prosecuted very often at all, particularly for leaks to the press, but it exists and I don’t think any legal authorities would argue that…it would be legal for anyone to give a classified document to someone that doesn’t have a clearance. But the thing that is much more controversial and that has never been done successfully by the U.S. government, is to prosecute someone who is not a government employee who received the information…It’s the U.S. government employee with the clearance versus somebody else, whether the somebody else is me or Julian Assange, whether it’s The New York Times or Wikileaks…You can read…the Espionage Act of 1917 that applies to this stuff. It’s a goofy law that needs to be updated in my opinion, but you can read it in such a way that it is a crime to do what we do and what Wikileaks has done, i.e. to make classified information public. And there’s at least one attempt historically…where the government tried to prosecute a non-government employee for exactly that, and…failed…but that fact is that if you were to prosecute [Julian Assange] for publishing…American secrets, then there’s absolutely no reason that I can think of why you couldn’t punish me or my colleagues at The New York Times for publishing American secrets. We don’t have clearances. We never agreed not to publish anything…but there has been a lot of people in congress pushing for such prosecution…It would be a very dangerous precedent for our business, for covering national security in this country. I would say that it would not be in the public interest, but usually they don’t pay us to have opinions as a reporter.
LF: Do you think a source such a Wikileaks will have, or has already had, an impact on the way traditional journalism functions?
SS: Well I think there is a difference. I mean, the one difference is scale…Wikileaks is a passive organization. It just sits there, waiting for someone to come from a government or a bank and say, “Hey, I’ve got some secret information,” so they’re really dependent on who comes to them…Normally…it’s like… “I’m a government official, I don’t like this policy, I think someone’s doing something illegal here, so here’s a secret document”…And it’s one document, five documents, 10 documents. But what hasn’t happened, and I think this is somewhat a result of technological changes…is, “here’s several hundred thousand documents”…And so, what’s changed is that possibility of large scale leaks…The response to the Bradley Manning business has been, not surprisingly for the U.S. government, fairly overwhelming, meaning if you aspire to be the next leaker of hundreds of thousands of documents you’ll have to consider the fact that Bradley Manning is sitting in his little cell in Quantico, VA…looking at potentially life in prison. So, my guess is that…there won’t be a long line of people lining up to do that…I think it’s too soon to say that this is a fundamental milestone in journalism.
There have always been leaks. And there will always be leaks. And the kind of traditional model of small quantities of classified documents being leaked, usually by someone with a particular purpose, will go on forever; I hope, you know, at least until I retire. And, but whether you’ll see a whole lot more of these giant dumps is another question…Julian Assange likes to say that he’s introduced…“scientific journalism,” which is his term for giving people documents that they can read for themselves, as opposed to having the media be a filter. And the thing that is a little bogus about that…is that even before there was an internet, many times in articles that I wrote we would reproduce a document in the print newspaper…Once the internet came along, it became totally standard practice, long before there was a Wikileaks, to post documents…We’d write a story about some legal opinion and almost always there would be a link to that document…so called “scientific journalism” is not an invention of Wikileaks. It’s the scale…But, you know, I’m not convince that this is the end of mainstream journalism or something that we’ll always see as a huge transformation. But I could be wrong.
LF: Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?
SS: It’s wonderful work if you can get it. It really is a sort of license to look into other people’s lives and to learn about the world. It’s a great job for curious people. So my general advice would be: become a journalist. The second part of that would be that I no longer know how. Because…I used to tell people, “get a good solid reporting job at a good smallish paper…that’s daily and that has a…community that’s large enough to have a variety of news going on. And just report like crazy.” But these days, so many of those papers are going out of business, just aren’t hiring, and then you have the whole online thing, which has many other paths into journalism, many of them unpaid. So, I feel kind of unqualified to give career advice anymore.