Governments Have A Long History Of Calling Journalists 'Traitors' When They Publish Embarassing Materials

22/10/2013 17:58


It's been somewhat incredible to watch government officials try to claim that reporters covering the NSA revelations from Ed Snowden's leaked documents are somehow "traitors." Last week, in the UK, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, made a fool of himself going around telling other newspapers that The Guardian had somehow helped terrorists. However, as Amy Davidson at the New Yorker reminds us, when the government suddenly starts calling journalists "traitors," it pays to be skeptical, because it's most likely that the government is just very embarrassed about some news that makes them look bad.

Davidson relays the story of "the Spiegel Affair" from 1962, in which German officials went completely insane in attacking Der Spiegel for supposedly "putting lives at risk" by revealing 41 "highly classified state secrets." Officials also claimed that the publisher and the reporter were fleeing the country and needed to be stopped and arrested. The publication's offices had to be raided. Of course, it all later turned out to be almost entirely bogus. The report was certainly embarrassing to German officials -- highlighting how ill-prepared the country was in the case of an attack, because a simulation had resulted in fifteen million West Germans dead. Many of the official claims were outright lies (like the publisher skipping town to Cuba, which never happened). While that doesn't mean that reporters can't sometimes reveal too much, it's a good reminder that when the government flips its lid in situations like this, it pays to take the claims with a very large grain of salt.

The key paragraph from Davidson makes the point clear:

The professional secret-keepers are phenomenally bad at distinguishing between the threat of terror and their terror at being threatened—or worse, as with Strauss, at being humiliated. They need the press not just to shake them up but also to keep them from being destabilized by their own weaknesses and vanities.

We've discussed at length the overclassification problem in the government, and this is all a symptom of that. The government likes to overclassify things that may embarrass government officials -- and thus they tend to overreact when those things eventually come out. This is, in part, because of the embarrassing information, but also because of the attempt to cover up the embarrassment, which only makes the whole thing worse.

Either way, this historical example is good to remember as we continue to see government officials make fanciful claims without any evidence to support them about how much the Chelsea Manning or Ed Snowden leaks have "harmed" our safety.


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