Revealing a Reporter's Relationship with Secrecy and Sources: Washington Post Reporter Barton Gellman Explains How He Handles Classified Information in Reporting on War and Weapons

By Gellman, Barton | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Revealing a Reporter's Relationship with Secrecy and Sources: Washington Post Reporter Barton Gellman Explains How He Handles Classified Information in Reporting on War and Weapons


Gellman, Barton, Nieman Reports


In the fall of 2003 Barton Gellman, a special projects reporter based in New York for The Washington Post, spoke at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in a lecture series called "Secrecy, Security and Self-Government. "He entitled his first lecture "An Argument for Unauthorized Disclosures" and his second "How I Learn Secrets and Why I Print Them." In January 2004, Gellman wrote an article about what weapons investigators were finding in Iraq, entitled "Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper: Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage. "What follows are excerpts from his lectures.

**********

I tell stories for a living, so I'll start with one tonight. A few months ago, I returned from hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I didn't have much luck. But I did spend a lot of time among the hunters. I did not choose to be "embedded" with the U.S. military. I cadged my way, more or less, into a search team, living and traveling as a reporter among its soldiers.

I'll tell you about May 1, 2003, a fairly typical day. The team gathered up its gear--sledgehammer, flame spectrometer, pathogen assay kit. We drove to a walled compound that the Defense Intelligence Agency called "Possible SSO Facility Al Hayat"--SSO being Saddam Hussein's Special Security Organization. U.S. Central Command ranked the site 26th of 90 top prospects for weapons of mass destruction. I watched the search team test for booby traps, scan for chemicals, cut through locks, and move by flashlight through a darkened corridor, lined with steel doors. The demolition guy broke through to the innermost chamber. And before our eyes there stood a cache--of vacuum cleaners.

I tell this tale not to make sport of the weapons hunt. Vacuum cleaners will take us soon to questions about secrecy, but a little context first. Site 26 produced much the same result as sites one through 25 and 27 through 90. Since I am here to talk about tensions between self-government and secrecy in the cause of national defense, I'd suggest that if you wish to assess the U.S. government's motive for and conduct of the war, you might think it relevant that there were no weapons in 90 of the top 90 suspected weapons sites. I don't say this is dispositive of anything, simply that it sounds like something relevant.

So now I come to the point about site 26. Everything I told you about it--that it was 26 on the priority list, that there were 90 on the list, the date and location of the search, the connection to the SSO and, yes, the vacuum cleaners--every bit of that is classified secret. A few of the things I wrote that we published in the newspaper were top secret. I learned some of it by direct observation, some by persuading people, against the rules, to share their records and memories.

Publishing Secrets

There is nothing anomalous here. I'm a projects reporter, and now my project is the weapons hunt. Nearly everything I want to know, and much of what I write, is classified. One day my adopted survey team seized a suspicious document, handwritten in Arabic and illustrated with sketches of laboratory glass. The document turned out to be a high school science exercise. The survey team's report was classified. The schoolbook exercise was appended to that report--which means that some Iraqi teenager's description of Boyle's Law is a classified U.S. government secret. A qualified authority made a binding judgment that disclosure of this text would do "serious damage to national security." So don't ask me about the relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas held at constant temperature. I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

The same survey team found a distillery where a biological warfare factory was supposed to be--that's classified--and a swimming pool U.S. intelligence called a chemical bunker. Classified. Looting, as you've read, has been an enormous problem for the weapons hunters. …

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