Journalists' Secrets

Governments which would like to whitewash their involvement in failed wars often target the press.

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began publishing the secret history of the Vietnam War, written by the Pentagon. The Pentagon Papers exposed America's gradual entanglement in the war in Southeast Asia, while concealing information and important decisions from the public.

The man who leaked the papers to the Times was Daniel Ellsberg, who co-wrote the study and kept a copy for himself. He objected to the war and wanted to expose the truth to the American public.

The U.S. administration launched an attack against both the newspaper and the leak. President Richard Nixon accused Ellsberg of treason and the court issued an order against any further publication. But in the end freedom of expression triumphed: The United States Supreme Court accepted the Times' appeal, ruling that publication of the Pentagon Papers was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ellsberg, who was tried under the Espionage Act, believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison. Over the course of the trial, it transpired that the White House had sent men to break into his psychiatrist's clinic in the hope of uncovering potentially embarrassing material. The trial was called off and Ellsberg was freed. He quickly became a symbol of the struggle against government tyranny and the concealment of military failures using false security pretexts.

The Pentagon Papers affair could not occur in Israel as we have military censorship that inspects every security-related report ahead of publication. This censorship frustrates journalists, but also protects them. An American journalist can publish anything and risk indictment for breaching state security, while an Israeli journalist whose report is approved by the censor has fulfilled his legal duty and is exempt from any liability. The censor, not the journalist, is in charge of preserving security.

Every journalist covering defense and state affairs is exposed to classified information. The law protects journalists from being charged with espionage as long as they gather information for a "reasonable purpose." Media coverage, even that which is critical of the government, is still seen in Israel as such a reasonable purpose.

If we depended only on information obtained from ministers and spokesmen, Israel would resemble Soviet Russia and Haaretz would be like Pravda, or the Syrian newspaper Tishreen. In a democracy, part of the information vital to the public comes from people who risk breaching security regulations, like Daniel Ellsberg.

Insecure governments tend to investigate leaks a great deal - to intimidate sources and restrain journalists. The Nixon administration did this, as did the Bush administration after the Iraq invasion. In Israel, the IDF launched an extensive hunt for leaks after the Second Lebanon War. All of these cases reflect the governments' desire to whitewash their involvement in failed wars. Gagging the sources is seen as a good way of keeping a clean, winning image and ensuring that only the government's announcements appear in the headlines.