Happy V-E Day, and can you keep a secret?

The P.M. flashes his famous V-for-Victory sign. We can't tell, from this photograph, whether he was flashing an "E" sign with the other hand.

After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not “why publish?” but “why would we withhold information of significance?” We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.

— Bill Keller, then-executive editor
The New York Times
June 2006

Germany surrendered to the Allies 67 years ago today. A few days ago, we saw a little footnote to that milestone. The Associated Press apologized for firing correspondent Ed Kennedy in 1945 over one of the biggest scoops in AP history. Kennedy reported the unconditional surrender a full day ahead of the competition, defying military censors to do so. The AP publicly rebuked him, and quietly canned him.

The apology came a bit late for Kennedy, who died in a traffic accident in 1963.

This is not to confuse him with another Kennedy who also died in 1963, and had earlier persuaded The New York Times to back off the Bay of Pigs story for national security reasons. (See Keller quote above.)

The icing on this tale came today, when we learned that the AP knew last week that the United States was closing in on Underwear Bomber II in Yemen — but withheld the news at the request of the government. That’s what the WSJ reported this morning, anyway:

U.S. officials had known about the plot for about a month, and President Barack Obama was briefed on the plot in April. White House officials had persuaded the Associated Press, which had an account of the plot in hand as early as last week, to hold off on publishing because the intelligence operation was still under way.

This is fascinating. It was one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with government censors in 1945, when the entire country was united in the all-out effort to win WWII, and cooperation with the censors was reflexive.

But today? When it is fashionable to call the War on Terror the “so-called War on Terror”? When, as Keller mentions above, the leftward side of the political spectrum persists in excoriating the media for not being skeptical enough prior to the Iraq invasion? For a major media entity to respond with a snappy salute to a government request to be discrete is decidedly remarkable.

This will no doubt spark dark rumblings — and probably already has; I’m not bothering to look — among Republicans about whether the AP would have agreed to this request if it had come from the Bush administration.

Interesting question.

What do you think about all of this? Oh, you want to know what I think. Well, I don’t know enough to have an opinion yet. I’d like to know what the AP knew, and what it was told before it made the decision to hold back on the story. The default position for a journalist is to report a story when you know it’s true, as Keller reported. But this sounds like it’s one of those rare cases in which lives may have been saved by holding back — which would justify the decision to wait.

27 thoughts on “Happy V-E Day, and can you keep a secret?

  1. bud

    Unlike his hapless predessesor Obama is demonstrating how to protect the country. Given that excellent track record the AP and others appreciate that he doesn’t make such requests willy-nilly and is more likely to comply than it would for Bush. Simply put, the AP respects Obama but after the constant misinformation Bush gave the press in the runup to the Iraq war they just lost respect for him and understandably were less willing to cooperate.

  2. Brad

    But… they DID cooperate. According to the WSJ. (I keep attributing this to the WSJ because I haven’t read it elsewhere yet. We journalists are like Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses. We’re not supposed to assume.)

  3. bud

    As for the distinction between “The war on terror” and “The so-called war on terror” it’s pretty simple, there is not such thing as a war on an abstract concept like “terror”. Therefore it makes sense not to dignify the term by calling it by that name.

  4. Brad

    Oh, really? If there is no worldwide War on Terror, what is Obama doing killing people in Yemen? Or Pakistan?

    Let’s be real, people.

    But, that said, let’s please not get off on a tangent about that, yet again. Let’s discuss the rather interesting issues at hand, having to do with news entities willingly cooperating in censorship for national security reasons.

  5. Greg

    Why did the AP have this information at all? That’s a question I’d like answered.
    I think it should be incumbent on US news organiztions to be discrete in matters of “National Security”. I also understand that administrations have abused the news organizations when it comes to “so-called National Security” matters.

  6. Silence

    With freedom comes responsibility. If reporting the news would cost lives, and simply delaying the reporting would save them, a responsible news organization should delay. Wouldn’t a news organization sit on the identity of an undercover policeman? Also, if they were to jeopardize an ongoing operation by breaking a news report, they might lose future access to well informed sources.

    The opposite would be when Geraldo was an embed and revealed his unit’s location and plans to the enemy.

  7. Mark Stewart

    Just because someone can say something doesn’t mean that they should – or must.

    Are you saying that you would never withhold reporting newsworthy information nomatter the collateral cost? Or just that you want the opportunity to use your own personal judgement as to the particular knowledge that you then possess?

    Sometimes it would be best to trust government; they may know more/better than anyone else. I would assume that reporters are always passing on divulging sensitive information for public consumption. This doesn’t bother me, as long as they remain skeptical and wary of misinformation.

  8. Brad

    No, I’m saying I’m giving the AP the benefit of the doubt on this one. Especially the same week they apologized to Ed Kennedy, I’m guessing that the case for holding off on publication was compelling.

    If there’s uncertainty in what I say, it’s because every editorial call is different. It’s not always good, or always bad, to go along with a government request to withhold information. You have to consider each case on its own.

    You can generalize in limited circumstances, of course. Generally, I think the control of information coming out of war zones in WWII was a good thing. That doesn’t mean there weren’t debatable calls. The Kennedy case is one.

    In his mind, the war was over (in Europe), so all bets were off. On the other hand, the Western Allies had decided for diplomatic reasons to withhold the info in deference to the Russians. One could argue that respecting the Russian desire to be part of the announcement was a legitimate foreign policy goal. But you are at this point getting into geopolitics rather than military security.

    Editors decide not to run things all of the time. In fact, they decide NOT to run more things than they run, by far, given limited time and space (especially in old media forms, such as the newspaper and the half-hour TV news show).

    What’s different is when they hold back at request of the government.

    I can’t remember when I ever did that. (In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I try to remember whether I did was an instance in which I directly defied a judge who attempted prior restraint on a news story.) But then, I was never responsible for war coverage, which is a whole separate category. The rules change when lives are at stake.

  9. Brad

    Here’s what the AP itself said yesterday:

    “The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.”

    So they didn’t totally play ball; they just agreed to wait long enough to avoid blowing the operation.

  10. Silence

    Speaking of judicial gag orders and restraint on a news story – how is that even acceptable?

  11. Silence

    Sounds like ol’ Barry Soetoro was trying to gin up some positive press and the AP scooped the administration.

  12. Mike F.

    Just read about how a story in the Chicago Tribune during World War II made it clear to astute readers that we had broken Japan’s operational code, key to winning the Battle of Midway. The Japanese changed their codes quickly thereafter, probably not a coincidence.

    The Trib, a famously conservative paper, nearly was prosecuted.

  13. Phillip

    There’s a very important distinction to be made here. Publishing information about a specific, limited operation to stop an imminent terrorist attack is different than disclosing information and/or examining with a very critical eye the evidence being used to justify a large-scale military venture, or in other cases, a possibly very broad intrusion on civil liberties in the name of fighting terror. These are distinct circumstances that must be weighed separately in each case. I recommend that everyone read the entire contents of Keller’s essay to which you linked.

    In a narrowly circumscribed situation such as this appears to be, even most ardent civil libertarians are likely willing to grant the government the benefit of the doubt, at least for the brief time required. However, all ensuing facts about such cases that can be brought to light, should be, once the operation is completed. This allows the public to evaluate whether or not the government’s case for secrecy and the actions it took were indeed justified.

    A small quibble: to say “as Keller mentions above, the leftward side…persists in excoriating the media…” re insufficient skepticism on Iraq, is putting words in Keller’s mouth: he never said anything about “left.”

  14. Brad

    Apropos of nothing, one of my favorite grumpy old man quotes, from “A Hard Day’s Night:”

    Stuffy middle-aged man: “Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort.”

    Ringo: “I bet you’re sorry you won.”

  15. `Kathryn Fenner

    The BBC miniseries The Hour explored this in the context of the Suez Canal in the 1950s. There was a 14 day gag rule on reporting anything but bare facts if the matter was before Parliament. The British PM Edens launched a possibly collusive strike (collusive with France and Israel) on Egypt arguably without adequate authority. Sound familiar?

    It was interesting to see how they got around the restrictions….

  16. Burl Burlingame

    During World War II, the Japanese launched more than 100,000 balloon bombs that drifted across the Pacific via the jet stream and came down in North America. They carried incendiary bombs and were beginning to carry anthrax bombs when the US accidentally hit the hydrogen generating plant in the summer of 1945. Some people were killed by these weapons coming down, and to this day, “spontaneous” fires in the northwest forests may be caused by these bombs going off. And yet, despite the obvious public danger, all press in the United States agreed not to write about it under pressure from the FBI. We didn’t want the Japanese to know where they were landing.

  17. Silence

    @ Kathryn – The UK has something called a “D-Notice” or a “DA-Notice” that can block reporting of an issue or event. I think they can also block the reporting of the notice itself.

  18. Brad

    That’s when they cite someone under the Official Secrets Act.

    Britain has the same traditions of valuing civil liberties, but they don’t have the absolutism of the First Amendment. Which makes things like the Official Secrets Act possible.

    The “D” is for Defence. Or DA for Defence Advisory (after 1993).

  19. Brad

    The balloon bombs remind me of Coventry.

    The story went around that Churchill knew, through Ultra, that Coventry would be bombed, but that he refused to warn the people there in order to protect Ultra.

    That’s largely said to be bogus, that Churchill only knew that there would be a big raid, and that it was thought at the time to be on London.

    Whatever the truth of it, it’s an intriguing question: When you have an intelligence asset that will enable you to win the war (and what was happening at Bletchley Park was that sort of asset), do you blow it on the chance that you might prevent some civilian casualties?

  20. Brad

    An estimated 568 people were killed in Coventry in the raid the night of November 14, 1940 — which is why people might have liked advance notice.

  21. Mark Stewart

    But then so would have the citizens of Dresden and Hiroshima/Nagasaki – just to be fair to the (relatively) innocent.

  22. Brad

    Yes, but they had no such dilemma, since they had not broken our codes.

    In fact, I recall that just before the Normandy invasion, our side had essentially caught, burned and turned every German agent in Britain, and had them feeding disinformation to Berlin. They helped bolster the fiction that Patton was commanding an entire nonexistent army that was aimed at the northern part of the continent.

    Odd that the Jerries were so very bad at spying. Because they were rather clever with mechanical things…

  23. Tavis Micklash

    May I ask a question?

    What would have happened if the terrorists had slipped by the authorities and got to used the underpants bomb?

    Would the AP have been partially responsible for not coming forward sooner?

    Would the story have ever seen the light of day?

  24. `Kathryn Fenner

    Perhaps the Jerrie spies were not as convinced of their cause–or were just too darn honest to make good spies.

  25. Silence

    Tavis – how would the story being in the news media have helped? It would have just caused people to panic, and the security apparatus was apparently already aware of the knicker-bomb.

  26. Dixieviking

    Back in the late 1950’s, JFK made campaign trips to the Northern Part of Wisconsin. A Milwaukee newspaper had JFK’s agenda for these visits and noticed that there were four-hour periods where there was no activity shown. Inquiries to JFK’s team brought no clarification. The newspaper started an investigation which revealed that JFK spent some time on each of those trips visiting his sister, Rosemary, who was a long-term patient committed to a Catholic Mental Institution. When the newspaper contacted JFK’s organization for a confirmation, Kennedy’s aides asked that the editors kill the story. Their reasoning was that the publicity about Rosemary’s condition and location might be injurious. They also admitted having another concern and that was that there would be some voters who would otherwise vote for the Democratic Candidate who might not do so knowing that the Kennedy Family had a mentally retarded child. The editors carefully measured the situation and came to the conclusion that giving the readers knowledge of Kennedy’s visits to his sister did not warrant their invasion of JFK’s private matters. In so doing, the Editors displayed sensitive and responsible discretion. They didn’t stretch for the sake of a headline.


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