Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Eric Holder should discuss leaks publicly

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Holder under fire for Justice Department inquiry of media phone records
  • Paul Begala says Holder's off-the-record meeting with media was a bad idea
  • He says we need a very public discussion of balancing public access vs. security
  • Begala: We would have been better off with more leaks in advance of Iraq War

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- The mega-wealthy Mitt Romney foolishly said the issue of income inequality should be discussed "in quiet rooms." He was wrong about that -- and it would be wrong to discuss press freedom and national security in an off-the-record setting.

It's kind of awkward to have a secret conversation about greater transparency. To their credit, media outlets like CNN, the New York Times, Fox News, The Associated Press and CBS have all refused to participate in such an off-the-record session. There is a better way: bring the conversation out into the public square.

Attorney General Eric Holder, a principled, decent public servant, needs to listen to his better angels and hold a very public discussion about the issues that led his Justice Department to obtain the phone records of as many as 100 Associated Press journalists and name a Fox News reporter as a "co-conspirator" in a leaks case.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

As a former government official, I want my government to keep some things secret. Now, as a member of the media, I also want sunlight to disinfect as much as possible.

Leaks truly can cost lives, and no member of the media should sugarcoat that reality or shirk their responsibility to public safety. And yet secretly pawing through phone records, targeting journalists, these actions are inconsistent with a truly free press. It is a balancing act, to be sure. But based on the reports we have seen, Holder's Justice Department has lost all balance.

This continues a troubling trend. The Bush administration was no great friend of the free press -- and the media shamefully marched in near-lockstep to the deeply dishonest Bush-Cheney drumbeat for war in Iraq. Because our government deceived and our media (with some notable exceptions) didn't dig out the truth, America made what national security journalist and author Thomas Ricks has called "the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy."

Are classified leaks a problem?

I wish there had been more leaks in the run-up to the Iraq War. And yet there have been times when I have seen what looks like operational details of counterterrorism efforts in the media and thought, "Why didn't they keep that secret? Now al Qaeda knows what we're doing."

So how do we balance the right to publish against the responsibility to protect the nation? How do we walk the line between freedom and security? It is a question as old as the republic. And it is one that needs to be debated robustly -- and publicly.

Holder should bring the whole debate out into the public square -- and the more public, the better. He should ask a high-powered group of leading public citizens to examine the issue fully and, if need be, loudly.

Veteran journalists like NBC's Tom Brokaw and CNN's Bernard Shaw have covered war and peace for decades. Current practitioners like CBS's Mary Walsh, who covers the Pentagon expertly, and the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, who has deep sources in intelligence, might be asked. National security veterans like Leon Panetta, Bob Gates, Bob Kerrey and former CIA head Mike Hayden could give powerful voice to the very real threats posed by leaks.

Former military officers like retired Maj. Gen. James "Spider" Marks have seen the intersection of intelligence and war-fighting, and I'd sure like to know the perspective of retired Gen. Stan McChrystal, whose military career was done in by incendiary comments by his staff to the press.

Marquee names not only bring experience, they bring attention. Academics like Harvard's Tom Patterson (the Benjamin Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press; how perfect is that?) and NYU's Jay Rosen could perhaps contribute a less self-interested perspective than either the journos or the government officials.

It's probably a mistake to name names, and I'm sure others can come up with a first-class lineup. But blue-ribbon panels sometimes get a bum rap. Far better to have this conversation, which goes to the heart of our democracy, in the open, on the record in full view of we, the people.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT