Bill Bennett Takes on Howard Kurtz Over Reporters and CIA Leaks

On CNN’s “The Situation Room” Monday, Bill Bennett and Howard Kurtz had an interesting debate over CIA leaks, the leakers, and journalists that report such information (hat tip to Expose the Left with video link to follow). This was an absolutely fabulous discussion between two folks on obviously opposite sides of an important issue facing our nation: should journalists that report leaked military secrets during a time of war receive Pulitzer Prizes or jail sentences?

As one would imagine, Howard Kurtz supported the former: “As a card-carrying journalist, I would draw the line against forcing journalists to reveal their sources, which would totally chill the process of reporting, and potentially, as we saw in the case of Judith Miller, put them in jail, as well.”

Predictably, Bennett didn’t agree:

“It is against the law to publish classified national security information. And that's clearly been done in this case. What a lot of people don't understand, including me, is why when people do that, or in a time of war, all of a sudden it is claimed that they can't be touched. The leaker can be prosecuted, but the person who wrote it down, told every citizen about it, and told every enemy of every citizen of this country gets a Pulitzer Prize.”

What follows is a full transcript of this marvelous discussion, along with a must-see video link courtesy of Ian Schwartz of Expose the Left.

BLITZER: Joining us now, our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett, and Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" and a reporter for "The Washington Post".

Porter Goss, the CIA director, said last February 2nd -- let me read this to both of you -- "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information."

And let me start with you, Howie.

It seems like there is a major effort in this administration not only to go after those who allegedly broke the law, those employees of the government who may be providing classified information, but those who are receiving it, including journalists.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES" And some people, Wolf, are calling it a war on the press by the administration. Now, if somebody who works for the CIA or any other sensitive government agency violates their oath and leaks classified information, then that person is fair game not just for firing, but for potential prosecution.

As a card-carrying journalist, I would draw the line against forcing journalists to reveal their sources, which would totally chill the process of reporting, and potentially, as we saw in the case of Judith Miller, put them in jail, as well.

BLITZER: What do you think?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, are reporters subject to the rule of law? I know this is very unpopular in this town to suggest they should be subject to the rule of law, but I think they are.

It is against the law to publish classified national security information. And that's clearly been done in this case. What a lot of people don't understand, including me, is why when people do that, or in a time of war, all of a sudden it is claimed that they can't be touched. The leaker can be prosecuted, but the person who wrote it down, told every citizen about it, and told every enemy of every citizen of this country gets a Pulitzer Prize.

BLITZER: But there are a lot of official leaks of classified information. The national security adviser and any administration -- I've been around Washington for 30 years -- the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, they might have a one-on-one meeting with a reporter or a group of reporters. They provide classified information out there. It has been going on for a long time.

BENNETT: Sure. And that's why one needs to be careful and one needs to be selective.

But I take it in the situation here with the James Risen case, the national surveillance program, Risen boasts that this was the number one top-secret thing going on in the NSA. And he's very proud that he broke it.

Well, he broke it and the whole world knows about it. Many people think damage was done. Porter Goss thinks damage was done.

The same thing, I think, on these CIA sites. You don't prosecute every violation of law, but when it's serious, when you're in war, when these things amount to giving the enemy information that the enemy can use against us, it just baffles the mind that reporters should get an exemption that other people don't get.

BLITZER: Howie, what do you think?

KURTZ: Well, first of all, news organizations, including "The New York Times" and "Washington Post," consider very carefully and sometimes withhold details and sometimes delay stories at the request of the administration when there's sensitive national security involved. But what really troubles me about your approach, Bill, is that under your approach, you know, not just Daniel Ellsberg, but the journalists who published the Pentagon Papers would have gone to jail. Not just Deep Throat, but Bob Woodward would have gone to jail for publishing Watergate's secrets.

And then in the -- I didn't hear you complaining about leaks during the Ken Starr investigation of President Clinton when journalists got grand jury information they should not have got.

BENNETT: Bob Woodward can go after Ken Starr, can go after George Bush. Woodward and Bernstein go after Nixon. These are not matters of national security at a time of war. This is a different circumstance.

KURTZ: President Nixon tried to put a cloak of national security over the Watergate corruption.

BENNETT: Tried to put, but it was fake. And we know that was fake. And when it's fake, you know, you go after them. And the press should go after them.

Look, I'm part of the media myself now. But I understand the difference between -- you know, between normal leaking, secrets going after administrations, and being at war and giving out classified information, which the agency is not giving to you but is saying this can damage us.

BLITZER: If a friend of yours in the administration had information, classified information, "Bill, I want you to check this out," and it involves super-secret stuff on Iraq or the war on terror, would you then go to the FBI and report him?

BENNETT: I don't know. It would all depend.

BLITZER: But you could go to jail if you receive that information.

BENNETT: That's entirely right. And maybe I would deserve to go to jail.

See, the concept of someone going willingly to jail is also beyond the pale. There were people like Martin Luther King who said, "On principle, I will go to jail."

But again, why should reporters not be subject to the law? You think I'm being overly harsh here on reporters. Do you understand American people saying, gosh, you know, they can take these secrets, they can publish them in the in the paper, and they not only don't pay a penalty, they get a Pulitzer Prize, they get honored for this?

BLITZER: Should there be separate standard for journalists?

KURTZ: Well, Bill seems to want to have a selective standard. Good leaks are OK when he thinks they're all right and bad leaks are not OK.

What I think is that if you have a journalist -- you know, it's a fair debate to say, should a newspaper or news organization publish national security information? A lot of people are angry about that. I understand that. But there are lots of other people, as you well know, who say that the American public pays the tax dollars here, ought to know about CIA secret prisons, ought to know about a domestic surveillance program.

There are members of Congress who were glad that information came out. So, some people think it's actually a public service.

BENNETT: Some people think, but who is empowered to make that decision? I would suggest that in elections we empower the administration and the government to make those decisions. If we don't like them, we vote...

KURTZ: So you trust the government but you don't trust journalism.

BENNETT: I trust the government vis-a-vis our enemies. And when we're at war I think it is serious enough.

We're also selective in the prosecution, Howard. You always decide based on facts and circumstances.

I just wish the press were more courageous when it wants to, you know, do truth to power with things like the radical -- radical Muslims with the cartoon controversy. I don't know where there the press' courage was on that. They know this administration isn't going to do anything to them. They know this administration is going to treat them with kid gloves.

Radical Islam, that would have been -- that would have been a standup thing to do.

BLITZER: That's another issue we debated a couple months ago.

BENNETT: Yes, sir. We did.

BLITZER: I've got to leave it right there.

Bill Bennett, Howard Kurtz, thanks to both of you for joining us.

Video Link

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.