A military lawyer had identified forty-one highly classified state secrets revealed in a single article. Senior officials were telling everyone who would listen that the journalists’ revelations had made the country less safe and put lives at risk—the reporters were simply traitors. The Russians might be behind it, and who knew what secrets the journalists would hand over if they weren’t immediately apprehended. Their publisher was already in Cuba, or maybe just headed there on a plane—anyway, he was a fugitive. A call was put in to a military attaché in Spain, to ask him to arrange to have another journalist stopped at the border; a soldier thought to be his source was arrested. The country’s leader mocked the media outlet involved: “You’ve got a publication that prints a half a million copies and systematically engages in treason—to make itself some money.” And not just a little treachery: “an abyss of treason.” The whole thing was “just plain ugly.”
This was the Spiegel Affair, big news in 1962; Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was the national leader saying that the journalists, at what was then a relatively new German newsweekly, were a bunch of greedy traitors. The Spiegel Affair got a mention on Thursday in an editorial in the Guardian, which responded to what one might call just plain ugly—and plainly unjust—charges about its handling of files leaked by Edward Snowden, an N.S.A. contractor. The Daily Mail had run an editorial with the title “THE PAPER THAT HELPS BRITAIN’S ENEMIES,” following a latter-day abyss-of-treason speech on Tuesday by Andrew Parker, the new head of M.I.5, who said that the Guardian’s stories were a “gift” to terrorists.
It was an apt citation. The strands connecting the Spiegel and Snowden affairs are many and instructive—and are a reminder, above all, of why press freedom is worth fighting for.
When a government calls journalists traitors the questions should begin, not end. A lesson of the Spiegel Affair is that claims need to be subjected to some skepticism. The Spiegel publisher, Rudolf Augstein, was not anywhere near Cuba, though, as it was the autumn of the Cuban missile crisis, it would have been quite a moment. He was already in the custody of the German police; the official who’d said otherwise, no less than the Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss, had been lying, left and right, about pretty much everything. Strauss was angry because a Spiegel cover story had embarrassed him—which was his definition of damaging national security. He’d made up the Cuban part to make it all sound like espionage. He wanted to make sure that Augstein’s reporter, Conrad Ahlers, was seized in Spain—an arrest that, a German official later said, was “somewhat outside of the law”—and to justify sending dozens of police officers to tear through the Spiegel offices late on a Friday night, seizing typewriters and screening calls. They also arrested the editor in chief, then searched his home, taking away drawings his children had made.
But what about the forty-one secrets? The story was a seventeen-page report suggesting that the West German government was not well prepared for a military attack (in a war game, fifteen million virtual West Germans ended up dead), quoting NATO sources to that effect, and suggesting that Strauss’s plan for fixing the situation—getting West Germany nuclear weapons of its own—might not be the best idea. This had been said before, and would be again, and was a useful thing for people in a democracy to know. Strauss called this “journalistic terrorism.”
The Spiegel editors had asked a military source if they were betraying any dangerous secrets; he gave them some advice, which they followed. For that, he, too, was arrested as a suspected traitor after his name was found in the magazine office. The report was detailed but, in terms of actual cloak-and-dagger secrets, so harmless that when, in 1971, Augstein wrote an Op-Ed in the Times expressing his solidarity for its publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was almost apologetic about putting the stories on the same level. (One of the “secrets,” as Spiegel noted last year in a report on the fiftieth anniversary of the affair, was “the name of an actor who had done nothing except play the role of the Defense Minister.” ) The article was bad for Strauss. It was good for Germany.
Snowden’s secrets are bigger and, it’s said, really, truly scary. (Though he never made it to Cuba, either, he has been in flight.) But the ones we have seen are biggest in terms of policy, law, parameters—things, again, that people in a democracy should know. The argument, made by Parker and others, that rules can’t be revealed because if terrorists know what they are they’ll find ways to work around them, is as dangerous as it gets. We get to know the rules, so we can find ways to work through our lives and figure out who should be governing us and how. Governments get to keep some secrets, but the most important point to come out of the Snowden revelations is that they shouldn’t get to have secret laws.
The Guardian, Washington Post, and other outlets—including Der Spiegel—that have published stories based on the Snowden papers have also exercised editorial judgment in thinking about the scale of the secrets they are telling. (Ken Auletta writes about this process in his recent piece on the Guardian.) That is why we haven’t seen everything. This very idea enrages some observers: How is it these journalists’ place to make those kinds of calls? Governments, they say, have put labels on things for a reason, and ought to be deferred to. But this ignores all the practical experience we have about how officials actually do that job. The professional secret-keepers are phenomenally bad at distinguishing between the threat of terror and their terror at being threatened—or worse, as with Strauss, at being humiliated. They need the press not just to shake them up but also to keep them from being destabilized by their own weaknesses and vanities.
Augstein would remain in jail for a hundred and three days; a number of his colleagues and two military officers were locked up, too. Police were camped in the Spiegel offices for weeks. But the magazine came out, because other publications offered its reporters and editors space to work. That is another lesson of the Spiegel Affair, and a reason that more than two dozen editors around the world wrote about why the N.S.A. stories were so important this week. Journalists have to defend journalists—not blindly, no matter what someone does, but without the sort of amour propre that leads one to think that only those who are disreputable will ever get in trouble.
Strauss’s angry complaints are fifty years old; they might as well be brand new. That does not mean this is just a routine round in an old fight; certain moments are decisive. The Spiegel Affair belonged to one in postwar German history, when people there were figuring out how much they valued press freedom and how little they liked being lied to. The answer came with the charges against Augstein and the others dropped and Strauss out of a job. A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents leak investigations and a profound lack of transparency, and argues that we are at such moment now. It might get ugly. And reporters should be ready—for the wild stories governments tell and the charges they throw around, as well as for their secrets.
Original article here.