The conversation could not be timelier. On April 16—the 300th day since the last Pentagon press briefing—the Schar School of Policy and Government and the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University convened a panel of distinguished correspondents to discuss the state of intelligence coverage today.
The Hayden Center’s culminating event for the academic-year-long Accountability of Intelligence series, titled “Breaking News! U.S. Intelligence and the Press” and hosted by the National Press Club, featured NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, The Cipher Brief CEO and publisher Suzanne Kelly, and two veterans from The Washington Post: Intelligence columnist David Ignatius and national security editor Peter Finn.
The event drew close to 400 guests, including current Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence Ellen McCarthy, and public affairs officers from across the intelligence community.
One theme of the discussion, which was moderated by Hayden Center Senior Fellow and former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell, was the professional similarity between journalists and intelligence officers.
Ignatius, who said it was a “traumatic time for those covering the intelligence industry,” noted that both jobs require hard-won trust with sources to seek the truth, and both struggle to avoid being manipulated by political agendas. Difficult to do, he suggested, when the news cycle moves at its current pace.
Finn, who offered that “tension with the government is a daily fact of life for us,” pointed out a popular illusion that “some wonderful source walks up to reporters” with a big intelligence story. “That’s not the way it works,” he said flatly.
Kelly described her job as focusing on intelligence issues that do not always get appropriate context, such as enhanced interrogation and NSA surveillance. Weighing in on WikiLeaks, she cautioned that “so many people are calling themselves journalists” today without having the ethics and reputation of correspondents like her colleagues on the panel.
The Post’s Finn added that he doesn’t “want to decide who is a journalist and who is not,” particularly in Julian Assange’s 2010 hacking case.
On the hot topic of government leaks, Mitchell said it was a myth that they all come from Capitol Hill. “Leaks of pending policy decisions are much less valuable now in the world of Donald Trump” when “there really is no interagency process.”
Ignatius, who is also a best-selling spy novelist, vividly compared intelligence leaks to “an Agatha Christie novel where it turns out everybody had a hand in the killing.” That is, a story is rarely based on a single leak from a single source. He agreed with Kelly’s warning that every leak comes with spin: “One thing we need to do better is being more transparent within the limits of protecting our sources” about “the baggage that comes in hand with the information that we’re sharing."
Morell and the panel concluded with warnings, noting the fate of Venezuela’s fourth estate after Hugo Chavez’s rise to power: when the media became the opposition, it “lost all its credibility with the Venezuelan people.” Kelly said that “the minute that you as a journalist lose sight of your mission and your goal, it’s gone forever.”
As for aspiring journalists, Finn said that being an intelligence correspondent is “not a starter job." Mitchell agreed that journalism in general is a tough business, but it can be right for a person with “a high sense of patriotism and responsibility.”
A video of the discussion can be found here.
Alexander Naumov is an undergraduate student at Schar School of Policy and Government majoring in international politics and Russian and Eurasian studies.