Journalists who routinely cover national security and foreign affairs topics take care to carefully consider possible harms to national security, privacy or similar interests from disclosures of information in their stories. Journalists carefully weigh government assertions of harm.
There are limits to what can be classified. Executive Order 13526 makes clear that information can only be classified if protection is “required” in the interest of national security. Further, information can never be classified in order to:
(1) conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error;
(2) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency;
(3) restrain competition; or
(4) prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security.
Source: Executive Order 13526, Section 1.7 Classification Prohibitions and Limitations.
Much reporting on global events comes from sources within government that are not given specific, prior authorization to discuss matters with journalists.
A great deal of information concerning the same topics are shared with journalists in unclassified discussions as well. Government sources are careful to talk about such matters (such as, for example, the landscape of interests in the Syria conflict) without mentioning classified specifics.
Rather than focus on curtailing what the attorney general called a “culture of leaking,” the government would more effectively protect the national security from possible harmful disclosures by sifting out and ignoring the inconvenient or embarrassing stories based on unnamed sources that do not truly harm national security but may complicate government efforts. Embarrassing or inconvenient disclosures are not supposed to be classified anyway. More centrally, focus government efforts more narrowly on the possible harm to national security and better identify, explain and protect against harm, as we suggested during the previous administration.
Unnamed sources can provide perspectives unavailable elsewhere and help ensure accuracy in news reporting. They are critical at times to reporting on what is happening inside government and to ensuring the free flow of accurate information about matters in our communities, the work of people who govern them, and events around the globe.