The 8000-plus-word play-by-play of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, written by freelancer Nicholas Schmidle and published in the New Yorker recently, is a fascinating read, with lots of juicy details (example: the plan was always to kill bin Laden, not capture him) delivered in the rapid-fire pace of a military thriller novel.
It has spawned a large set of after-the-fact writings too, speculating about how Schmidle got the information and how reliable it really is, given the bombshell revelation that Schmidle's account, written from the perspective of the Navy Seals who conducted the mission, was based on secondhand interviews and not a single interview with a Seal who participated in the raid.
Russ Baker of WhoWhatWhy, in a column republished on Salon, laid out the most detailed critique, noting contradictions in previous accounts by government officials (including President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who was quoted by name in the New Yorker piece), questions about the lack of supporting evidence for the account, and shortcomings of logic within the piece itself that call its veracity into question.
New Yorker editor David Remnick has defended the piece, saying the sources are known to company executives and were fact-checked according to the magazine's standards.
The episode shows that we are in a new media-consumption environment, in which it is not just conspiracy theorists and backwoods kooks who are concerned about being manipulated by the media. The general public is rightly worried about both motivations and national security, and the only cure is transparency — a feature sorely lacking in that article.
Accusations have already flown about whether Schmidle (and the New Yorker, by extension) is being used by government officials, either to cheerlead for Obama's handling of the fight against terrorism, or to whitewash a mission muddied by legal and moral quandaries.
But over the weekend, another important issue became clear to me, during an extensive conversation with a friend's father. A long-retired captain in the US Navy, who worked both aboard ship and in the Pentagon, this man is a perceptive thinker with a lot of political and media savvy.
He had a large number of concerns about the reporter's role, and the New Yorker's, in publishing material that at least at one time was classified, and may still be. His concern along this line extended to pieces in other media that identified the attackers as a special-operations force called DevGru (formerly known as Seal Team 6), and went so far as to identify the town where many of those fighters live. He suggested, as have many others, that perhaps the Taliban's shooting down of a US special-operations helicopter, killing as many as 25 members of DevGru, may have been planned as revenge specifically because the unit was publicly identified.
I dove in, defending press freedom, arguing in favor of publication of government secrets, the better to monitor our democracy with.
As our conversation deepened, it emerged that he had fewer concerns about the reporting the New York Times had done on the Bush administration's warrantless-wiretapping program, which top White House staffers objected to on the grounds that any publicity at all would endanger national security.
What made the difference? The Times included in that package information about the government's objections, as well as the Times management's assessment of those concerns, and details of the action the paper took (withholding some details that editors agreed were dangerous to make public).
That type of straight talking was what was missing from the New Yorker's bin Laden raid piece.
It turns out that transparency isn't just for the government; if journalists want to be trusted by the public, we should take similar steps as those we propose public servants take.