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Amazing Story: The Government Finally Kept a Secret

“Absolutely amazing.” That is how Vice President Joe Biden described the secrecy surrounding the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Amazing is right. For when it comes to national security secrets—including some involving highly classified counterterrorism operations—our government has frequently leaked like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. In this instance, there was not a single drip.

As many as 16 members of Congress were briefed on the raid beforehand. Top White House national-security staffers and, as planning progressed, a good many Pentagon and CIA officers were brought into the know. Perhaps dozens of intelligence analysts had been staring at images of the compound for thousands of hours. Operators of drones and spy satellites monitoring this special target, on the lookout for the silhouette of a tall man, knew something extraordinary was afoot. Although information was tightly compartmentalized, widening circles were inevitably brought into the planning. No one blabbed.

The obvious explanation for the success is no doubt the simplest one: Everyone entrusted with the secret recognized that the U.S. would pay a high price for its disclosure. That shared understanding was crucial. But what if someone disgruntled over, say, the “illegal” incursion into Pakistan, or “illegal” orders to shoot to kill, had talked to a newspaper reporter or Julian Assange of WikiLeaks? What then?

The answer, of course, is that we have laws on the books that prohibit the unauthorized disclosure of government secrets. Those laws would fall hard on any official who violated his oath to protect classified information. The Obama Justice Department has been enforcing those laws with great vigor. Indeed, it has prosecuted more leakers under the espionage statutes than all of its predecessors combined. Prior to 2008, there had been only three such prosecutions ever. The Obama administration has already launched five. If an official had been indiscreet, the transgressor could face years of imprisonment.

What about the press? Evidently, the press was kept in the dark about the raid as successfully as everyone else. But if an intrepid reporter had managed to connect some dots and learned of bin Laden’s location or of the impending American raid, could a story have run that jeopardized the mission?

Responsible editors may well have decided to spike such a scoop. For more than seven months in 2008 and 2009, the New York Times, to take one remarkable example, successfully suppressed news that one of its reporters, David Rohde, had been kidnapped by the Taliban. To protect Mr. Rohde’s safety, the editors seemed to exercise the art of concealment more effectively than the U.S. government’s own secrecy apparatus is often capable of achieving.

Neither the Times nor its industry competitors, who readily agreed to gag themselves at the Times‘s request, published a word about the missing journalist until Mr. Rohde escaped his captors. “We hate sitting on a story,” Bill Keller, the Times‘s executive editor, explained at the time, “but sometimes we do. I mean, sometimes we do it because the military or another government agency convinces us that, if we publish information, it will put lives at risk.”

Newspaper editors have not always behaved with as much circumspection as Mr. Keller did in that instance, or in others in the past. During World War II, the Chicago Tribune, under the auspices of the isolationist Colonel Robert C. McCormick, published a story suggesting that the U.S. had broken Japanese naval codes. If the Japanese had acted upon such news and changed their codes, the U.S. would have been deprived of a critical window into Japanese planning, costing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of American servicemen their lives.

More recently, the New York Times and other leading newspapers have published stories disclosing details of operational counterterrorism programs, despite warnings from the Bush White House that if another terrorist attack ensued, the editors would have blood on their hands. Although there are laws on the books that can punish the press for publishing secrets, they have never been invoked, and their constitutional status remains unclear.

WikiLeaks further complicates the picture. Without compunction, it has already published thousands of U.S. government secrets, including some containing the names of civilians in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq who have cooperated with American forces. In other words, it compromised the holy grail of intelligence: sources and methods.

The Justice Department is now considering prosecuting Mr. Assange for violations of the Espionage Act. A sitting grand jury in Alexandria, Va., hearing evidence in the case, was issuing subpoenas as recently as last week.

A citizen of Australia and an activist of anarchist persuasion, Mr. Assange has no allegiance to the U.S. Quite the contrary: He regards our country as a menace to the world. Is he free to publish damaging secrets at will, or do our laws reach those who would use classified information to injure our nation? That is ultimately what’s at stake in the grand jury proceedings now under way. For while the Obama administration successfully kept the secret of the bin Laden raid, we have not always been so lucky.

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