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Learning to Make Distinctions

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Should the press publish the names of American officials who have interrogated captured al Qaeda operatives? That question came sharply to the fore in 2008, when the New York Times went ahead, against strenuous CIA objections, and disclosed the identity of a CIA officer who interrogated Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other high-level al Qaeda prisoners. The identities of intelligence officers are protected by law, but only when they are undercover. In this instance, that was not the case.  The man was outed and placed at risk of retaliation and/or harassment by critics of the CIA and its interrogation policies.

The Times argued in an editor’s note that publication of “the name was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article” and that the agent in question, “a career analyst at the agency until his retirement a few years ago, did not directly participate in waterboarding or other harsh interrogation methods that critics describe as torture and, in fact, turned down an offer to be trained in such tactics.”

Still, one must ask, what was the public benefit from the paper’s decision? It is hard to discern.  It is also hard to follow the logic of the Times‘s claim that the article’s “credibility” would have been impaired by the alternative of, say, using an alias.

In recent days, the question has arisen again in an upcoming military commission trial at Guantanamo Bay of Omar Khadr, who killed an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. The Pentagon had banned four reporters from covering the trial because they violated rules forbidding the identification of interrogators by name.

But it has now rescinded the ban. The interrogator in this instance, Army Sgt. Joshua Claus, described in court papers only as “Interrogator #1,” had outed himself in an interview several years back.

The WikiLeaks fiasco, which has placed lives in danger and complicated the American war effort in Afghanistan, highlights the necessity of secrecy in wartime. But part of keeping secrets secret is building respect for the secrecy system. Keeping Sgt. Claus’s identity secret when it is already known by all is what gives governmental secrecy a bad name.

In response to criticism from news organizations, the Pentagon has done the right thing. It is acting responsibly. Its behavior is a study in contrast to that of the New York Times.

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