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 6:45 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT