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Twitter, World War II and the death of official secrets

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We’ve had plenty of examples over the past couple of years of how Twitter can be used to break news, especially news that official sources don’t want revealed, and we got another one this week when the Obama administration tried and failed to keep the president’s trip to Afghanistan a secret from everyone but the official White House press corps. Twitter broke the news, naturally, thanks to a post from an Afghan news website, and the incident raised a number of questions about how political news works in a digital world of real-time distributed information — and whether official secrets are becoming a thing of the past.

As several outlets including CNN and The Huffington Post have described, the White House tried to keep the news of President Obama’s trip to the Afghanistan capital of Kabul secret for the usual reasons — the main one being that the commander-in-chief’s life could be threatened if his exact movements were known, especially the dates and times when he would be flying, and therefore at risk of an attack. So the White House did what it always does: namely, tell the press corps, swear them to secrecy and then release some cover story about all-day meetings with dignitaries in the Oval Office.

Information wants to be free, and Twitter wants to help

That all worked pretty well, right up until the point at which the Afghan news website TOLONews posted a comment on Twitter about the fact that Obama was about to meet with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The tweet was quickly deleted — presumably after a nasty phone call from someone working for the State Department — but the news had already escaped into the wild. Soon, Twitter messages appeared asking whether the president was actually in Washington or whether he was in Afghanistan.

Even then, the Obama administration’s persuasive methods managed to stem most of the leaks: officials denied the president was on his way to Afghanistan (a fact that was technically true at the time they stated it, since his flight hadn’t left yet) and then later asked websites like Buzzfeed to pull down the Twitter posts they had published with speculation about the trip. Ben Smith of Buzzfeed — formerly of Politico — said the decision was a tough one, but in the end the site decided to play ball:

Like most news organizations, we will typically defer to the White House’s judgment on true security risks… it didn’t seem like the right moment to have an abstract argument about the contemporary media ecosystem, though I think it’s getting harder and harder to unring these bells.

Of course, there were sources that government officials couldn’t do anything about, including the Drudge Report — “There is nothing you can do about Drudge,” said one administration source — and Twitter. Presumably other users inside Afghanistan saw the TOLONews message, something that could have turned into a bigger source of leaks if there were more overlap between Twitter users in that country and the U.S. With the ability that sources of news now have to go direct, it’s surprising that the White House or any other government can keep much secret at all.

Secrecy is the government’s friend, but not always the public’s

The ability to manage what information gets out and when has been one of the chief weapons of any American government — whether it’s secret info about the Bay of Pigs invasion, or President Kennedy’s various sexual liaisons, or the break-ins at Watergate that toppled Richard Nixon’s government. In a recent speech, Watergate icon Robert Woodward scoffed at the idea that the internet would have been of any help in such a case, which seems to deliberately ignore everything we’ve learned from Wikileaks about the fragility of official secrets.

In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, the same week that saw the Obama government try to maintain a White House secret also saw the Associated Press newswire apologize to the reporter that it fired more than 60 years ago — after he broke the official embargo on the end of World War II. Edward Kennedy was one of a handful of reporters who were told that the Germans were signing a treaty to end the war, but were forbidden to publish that news until they got the green light from the U.S. government. Kennedy got frustrated with the wait and eventually filed a report to the wire, which led to his dismissal.

Imagine what might have happened during World War II — or Vietnam or any other global conflict — if soldiers and reporters and even government agents had had access to Twitter and Facebook and mobile phones. Would those wars have been fought differently? It’s easy for the Obama government, or any government, to argue that secrecy is required for the safety of the president, and that of his family (a recent trip that involved the Obama children was also kept secret, to the point where stories about it were removed from the internet). And national security is an even bigger defence.

While those kinds of arguments might work for official sources who belong to the clubby White House press corps, however, they probably aren’t going to sway other non-official sources, who now have the means to publish just as widely as any newspaper. Does that mean the government will eventually try to censor Twitter and Facebook, or will it just try to play the game by these new rules?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and New Media Days

3 Responses to “Twitter, World War II and the death of official secrets”

  1. Chad L

    Whether or not you like him or our military campaign in the region, the safety and protection of our President ensures the relative safety of everyone in the U.S. The flippant tone of this article suggests it’s just another “social privacy” issue spurred by the social web. This is a serious issue. Note to White House – ban reporters on these types of trips and grant media access via telepresence (I’m sure John Chambers at Cisco can set this up) sessions staged aboard Air Force 1. It’s clear that reporters don’t honor their “sworn secrecy” and can’t resist the temptation of information leaks. The fact that a reporter thinks it’s “a tough one” (Buzzfeed’s decision) to publish versus jeopardizing national security is another deeper societal issue that can’t be addressed properly here. This shows why new media startups have a lot to learn from the established quality journalistic institutions like New York Times they love to bash. Media dogma or safety at home?? Hmmm

  2. Regardless of your opinions toward him or our military presence in the region he is still our President and Commander in Chief and everyone living in the U.S. enjoys relative safety because he’s well protected. This is more serious than the flippant tone of this article suggests. The White House should ban all reporters from these trips and resort to doing telepresence interviews from Air Force 1. “Sworn to secrecy” clearly is no longer effective.