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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.

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

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