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Some things never change.

A story in the Washington Post this week, Lack of candor on surveillance, explains how administration officials use classified briefings to hide domestic spying operations from the public and from Congress.

One Senator called the classified briefings of Congressional intelligence committees “a rope-a-dope operation.”  The committee members are given some information and then forbidden from discussing it with anyone else, thus rendering it useless for oversight or legislation.

It’s an old, familiar trick.  When I was a news correspondent in Asia during the Vietnam War era, American military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials used it regularly to try to prevent news organizations from reporting unpleasant or embarrassing–or downright scandalous–information.  Instead of “classified briefing,” the words to the press were “off the record.”

In an open press conference, with cameras and tape recorders rolling and all reporters invited, everything said could of course be quoted and attributed to the speaker.  But in smaller, more private sessions, often just for “trusted” American correspondents, the rules became more complicated.

“Background” was information you were given to help you “understand” the story, or at least to understand the story the way the official wanted you to understand it.  That was the “little bird told me” ploy.  You were not supposed to report that as coming from anywhere near your source though you could discuss it and refer to it obliquely in your story as something you just happened to know.

“Not for attribution” meant you could report everything that was said without identifying who had said it.  That was often useful to both sides after a measure of trust had been established: the official trusted the reporter to protect his source, the reporter trusted the source not to hide behind the gimmick to broadcast phony or distorted information.

Finally, “off the record” information was not to be used at all.  Bear in mind, this was not “Classified” or “Secret” material, which was never supposed to be given to us anyway. Most of the time it was simply information that the official did not want publicized, sometimes for good and honorable reason, often not. By telling us about it “off the record” the official was trying to keep the lid on it. Once we heard an off-the-record story we were stuck; even if we subsequently learned it somewhere else, we could not publish it without appearing to violate the agreed-upon rules, thereby endangering future access to useful sources and opening our story up to official denials.

Correspondents in those days seldom complained about that annoying trick.  We were supposed to dig for information and if we depended only on generals and ambassadors to tell us what was going on we were not doing our jobs.  Furthermore, if we suspected that the prohibited information was important we could preserve our freedom to act on it by interrupting and walking out of the room as soon as those three words were uttered.

But when the executive branch of government uses such tactics to hide the extent of its activities from the legislative branch, that threatens the separation of powers, the basis of our constitutional system of government. The members of the intelligence committees cannot just walk out of those briefings.  They need accurate and complete information.  If they cannot get the truth from the executive branch they are in trouble.  And so are we.

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