The Best-Kept Secrets

Let's get this straight. We are in a global war that is probably the biggest news story of our lifetimes. An American citizen is arrested at a public airport in Chicago for allegedly planning terrorist attacks, then transported to New York and held in prison for more than a month, and quite a few people, including his attorney, know about it. And the media don't find out until John Ashcroft comes beaming in from Moscow to tell us the story?

How did that happen?

We know how it happened, of course. This administration keeps secrets like nobody in Washington has kept secrets for a long time—maybe ever. Unlike the previous administration, which couldn't resist telling journalists every little thing about itself down to its underwear choices, the lips of the current regime are pretty much vacuum-sealed. And when it comes to war, these people are breathtakingly good at not talking.

War secrets have always been hard to come by. Once upon a time, wartime administrations let the media feel they were in on the action by allowing reporters to tag along with the troops. Now even that privilege is gone, and for the really big stories, we're reduced to sitting in our dreary cubicles waiting for someone to read a press release on cable. As if this weren't humiliating enough, some elder journos who fondly remember ye olden wars, including Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, have revved up their Sopwith Camels and flown across TV screens everywhere with a dark message: This war coverage is an embarrassment, and Ernie Pyle is spinning in his grave.

The question shouldn't be how the journalism of this war measures up to the journalism of previous wars. There has never been a war like this one; everyone is working without a rule book. Basically, in this latest round of the ancient tug-of-war between government and journalists, one side decided the game was too dangerous, dropped the rope, and went off to meet in its secret clubhouse. And the other side, the media, was left standing there, wondering what to do next.

The story of Jose Padilla, the alleged dirty-bomb plotter, is an especially public reminder of this troubling situation. Many journalists today hear two different voices inside their heads. One, the professional voice, wants to condemn the government for excessive secrecy. The other voice, that of the private citizen, understands and even appreciates the secrecy because so much is at stake. Several journalists that I spoke to this week expressed various degrees of astonishment and frustration at how little they are able to learn about the war, even as they concede that secrecy is often necessary.

"I think we're in some really uncharted waters," said Christopher Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News. "There is a whole scope of activities that are going on that the government is trying to keep invisible, and sometimes there are good reasons for it and sometimes there are not good reasons."

Like other news organizations, ABC walks a delicate line in its war reporting and doesn't automatically run with every story. Isham said the network knows where an important U.S. detainee is being held in custody but has decided not to go with the story. "His location is not as central to the story as what he is saying and how valuable his information is. On those two points, we have been and continue to be aggressive.... It's a cost-benefit thing. They would have to move him, we'd have several bureaucracies pissed at us, ... and in the end, what would we have? We would have reported the location where he's being interrogated."

One editor at a newspaper's Washington bureau, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said not getting the Padilla story didn't bother him much. "It wasn't like this was something that was right under everyone's noses in Washington. I don't feel like, oh my god, why didn't we have this?" But this same person said the story was a prime example of how good the Bush administration is at keeping secrets. "[This administration's] more controlled than any I've seen in my career.... In some ways it's good, and it shows discipline. But in some ways it's not good for democracy, being so closed from the world."

Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, said the Padilla story is "just one indication of a much broader pattern that I feel acutely aware of, which is that there is a hidden infrastructure to this war, not only abroad but here in the United States." He noted that among the government's allies in the war are a number of undemocratic countries where secret-police methods are common and the free press nonexistent.

"It is remarkable that you could encounter a case of this seriousness inside the United States and not get near it," Coll said. "I'm troubled as a journalist because I'd like to be able to convey a much fuller picture of what the structure of this campaign really is. It's not asking much—just a sketch of where the pressure points are, who's in detention, how they're being managed, what methods are being used."

But such a sketch will be hard to come by from this administration. Coll notes that there's a reason why it benefits those prosecuting the war to keep so many suspected terrorists in detention outside the United States. "It's been, as I understand it, the preference of our government to operate overseas to the greatest possible extent, precisely because it's much easier to manage detainees in those systems."

And easier to keep everything secret. "It's a hidden war," says Coll. "And the formal military piece of it in Afghanistan is certainly not the most significant part of it right now."