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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2003 / 12 Tishrei, 5764

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mobray
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Cheers for the government leakers | Lost in all the controversy about Bob Novak's identification of an undercover CIA agent has been any discussion on how leaks are crucial to the functioning of a democracy.

Novak's July 14 column - in which he reported that the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson, the chief critic of the claim that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium, worked for the CIA - has been called "despicable" by Sen. Charles Schumer and a "thuggish act" by David Corn of the liberal Nation magazine.

But the hyperbolic criticism - and the Justice Department's new criminal investigation - threaten to muzzle potential future government leaks. Which would be tragic.

If the Justice Department's investigation transforms into a witch hunt, it could have a chilling effect on not just anonymous "dirt" being dished to reporters, but on legitimate whistle-blowing. And the argument that what Novak reported might have been classified does not necessarily make the leak any more suspect.

Obviously, a journalist should use discretion when determining what information to report. If something might hinder an ongoing investigation - particularly one as frenetic as the one tracking the D.C. snipers - or if it might jeopardize soldiers' lives, a journalist needs to use common sense. Not everything verified should be reported. (We should keep in mind that it's not as if Novak reported war plans on the front page of the New York Times.)

But in a day and when "terrorism" can be used as justification to classify almost any document or piece of information, saying something is "classified" is not enough reason to condemn - or prosecute - its disclosure.

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Because if journalists were restricted to reporting non-classified information, then the public would be forced to rely on what the government wants known, not what should be known. Leaks, particularly of classified information, are necessary to hold government accountable to voters.

If anything, in a time of war, leaks become more vital in holding the government to account. I must admit my bias, of course, as a journalist in favor of more information reaching the public. But as a citizen, I have an even stronger bias in favor of leaks.

Last year, I learned of a program called Visa Express, which had let in three of the Sept. 11 terrorists in the three months it was in operation before Sept. 11. But despite that track record, it was still open for 10 months after the attack - meaning that all residents in the nation that sent us 15 of 19 Sept. 11 terrorists were still applying for visas at private Saudi travel agents well after the twin towers disappeared from the skyline.

The only reason, though, that I was able to report on Visa Express - which eventually led to Congress closing the loophole - is that a source provided reams of classified documents. There was nothing sensitive in the documents marked "classified"; the files were merely embarrassing. But without the leak, I never would have been able to alert the public that the State Department's official policy on issuing visitors' visas - even after Sept. 11 - was that "if the travel agency is reasonably satisfied that the traveler has the means to purchase a `tour package,' there will be little further evaluation of an applicant's qualifications for an NIV (non-immigrant visa)."

And if it hadn't been for a leak, the public never would have learned from the Wall Street Journal that the State Department was asking auditors to help shut down the Iraqi National Congress, the pro-democracy group that Congress had fully supported, only to have State use bureaucratic guerilla warfare to undermine the group. And when Congress learned what had happened, it acted.

These are but two recent examples of a tradition that has produced far more important stories, such as the Pentagon Papers. It's in the best interests of Americans - and our safety - that the tradition of leaking continue.

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JWR contributor Joel Mowbray is the author of "Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America's Security". Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, Joel Mowbray.