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Trevor Timm: When It Comes To Government, How Much Do We Have The Right To Know?

Dec 1, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 8:05 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Transparency.

About Trevor Timm's TED Talk

Whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing often risk prosecution. Journalist Trevor Timm says the press can't truly act in the public interest if sources fear speaking out.

About Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

He is a journalist, activist and lawyer who writes for The Guardian on privacy, free speech and national security.

He has contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift and Politico.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


So if you were given a choice, a binary choice between too much transparency or secrecy, what would you pick?

TREVOR TIMM: If we're talking about the government that is supposed to work by and for the people, I would absolutely take too much transparency.

RAZ: Always.

TIMM: In almost all cases.

RAZ: This is Trevor Timm.

TIMM: I'm the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

RAZ: Which advocates for openness and transparency in government.

TIMM: You know, when we're talking about government transparency, what that means is that the people should know what the government is doing, whether that is the policies they're carrying out in the executive branch, the laws that are being debated and discussed in Congress or the court system.

RAZ: But Trevor says - and this probably won't come as a shock - that the government often falls way too short.

TIMM: What we have seen over the past six or seven decades is way too much secrecy, where everything is considered classified by the government that pertains to foreign policy or national security. And it allows the government to break laws, waste billions of dollars, abuse the system and facilitates corruption. And transparency is a very important tool to prevent those types of things.

RAZ: The problem, of course, is that sometimes when people like whistleblowers or journalists try to hold the government accountable, they're met with intense resistance. Trevor gave one of those examples on the TED stage.


TIMM: This is James Risen. You may know him as the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. Long before anybody knew Edward Snowden's name, Risen wrote a book in which he famously exposed that the NSA was illegally wiretapping the phone calls of Americans. But it's another chapter in that book that may have an even more lasting impact. In it, he describes a catastrophic U.S. intelligence operation in which the CIA quite literally handed over blueprints of a nuclear bomb to Iran. If that sounds crazy, go read it. It's an incredible story.

RAZ: So - all right, let's talk about this James Risen story. So he has this book. And it comes out. And it reveals that the CIA basically handed over blueprints to build a bomb - the bomb - to Iran. Is that what happened, basically?

TIMM: Yeah. It's - basically he was writing about a spectacularly botched CIA operation - this is in the early 2000s - where the CIA was trying to trick Iran into building a fake nuclear weapon. And so they got blueprints for a nuclear bomb, made some small alterations to them that would essentially make it inoperable, and attempted to hand them over to the Iranian government. Now, the Iranian government allegedly immediately realize the fake parts of the diagram, but also understood that they handed over a largely accurate blueprint of a nuclear bomb as well. And so it was really a story about the CIA essentially handing, you know, incredibly sensitive material, the most sensitive you could possibly imagine, to a country which they were trying to prevent from getting a bomb. And they were actually helping them along.

RAZ: This is classified information that he gets.

TIMM: Yeah, absolutely. The information that Risen publishes in this story I think anybody in the government would agree was highly classified. You know, this was a covert operation by the CIA. It's also important to realize that there is a huge public interest to this story, too.

RAZ: But there's no way the government is happy he published this classified information.

TIMM: No, they're not.


TIMM: For nearly a decade afterwards, Risen was the subject of a U.S. government investigation in which prosecutors demanded that he testify against one of his alleged sources. And along the way he became the face for the U.S. government's recent pattern of prosecuting whistleblowers and spying on journalists. You see, under the First Amendment, the press has the right to publish secret information in the public interest. But it's impossible to exercise that right if the media can't also gather that news and protect the identities of the brave men and women who get it to them. So when the government came knocking, Risen did what many brave reporters have done before him - he refused and said he'd rather go to jail. So from 2007 to 2015, Risen lived under the specter of going to federal prison.

RAZ: So what ended up happening to him?

TIMM: They - after the seven-year legal battle they just dropped the subpoena entirely.

RAZ: Why?

TIMM: Well, you know, over the last decade, while this subpoena and legal battle was going on, the U.S. government realized that to find reporters' sources they actually didn't need the reporters to testify against them anymore. You know, with the explosion of cell phones and email and the Internet, the government realized that it had increased surveillance capabilities. And it could go to a company like Google or Verizon or AT&T or Facebook and gather all sorts of data on who sources are talking to, who reporters are talking to. And they can take this information to court and get a conviction against a source without having the reporter testify at all.

And this is exactly what happened in James Risen's case. They were able to get Risen's phone records, his email records, his travel records. And Risen did not know this until many years later. And they were able to use this information to build a circumstantial case against James Risen's alleged source, who is a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling. And once the trial began after the subpoena was dropped Mr. Sterling was quickly convicted.

RAZ: So let's say we personally like that James Risen exposed this information and think it's important, right? How do we know what should be secret and what shouldn't be secret? And who decides that?

TIMM: Well, I think this is a great question because I think that people have a misconception about what happens when journalists or reporters or newspapers publish newsworthy stories that the government thinks is classified. You know, number one, it is not just one single source who is deciding what should go in The New York Times and what shouldn't.

You know, reporters are - when they publish these types of stories often have to have multiple sources to make sure that things are accurate. They have experienced national security teams inside these newspapers made up of editors, reporters and lawyers who look at this information from the perspective of, OK, what is the public interest of this story, and what is the potential damage to national security? And can we weigh those two ideas against each other and see if this information is far more in the public interest than could potentially damage national security?

But when the government says to a newspaper virtually every time you shouldn't publish this story because you're going to have blood on your hands, it becomes a boy who cries wolf where the government is saying that everything that they say is classified is definitely a danger to society and they can never know it. And then when a newspaper publishes it, it becomes clear that there was no damage and that this was in the public interest. And this happens over and over again. And you quickly start to realize the classification system is broken.

RAZ: In just a moment, more from Trevor Timm on whether there should be a limit to government transparency. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today ideas about transparency. And we were just hearing from free speech advocate Trevor Timm, who told the story of New York Times reporter James Risen, who exposed a botched CIA operation. Now, for nearly a decade, Risen faced the threat of prison until the government dropped its legal battle against him. But since then much bigger secrets have been exposed, most famously by Edward Snowden.

TIMM: You know, many people assume that, I think, who didn't follow the story closely - that Edward Snowden took a lot of documents from the NSA and just posted them on the Internet...

RAZ: Right. Right.

TIMM: ...Himself. But that's actually not what happened. You know, he actually purposely went to experienced national security reporters at The Washington Post and The Guardian so that it wasn't just him deciding. And these newspapers combed through these documents and published many important stories in the public interest that actually won both the newspapers the Pulitzer Prize. Yet there was also a lot of material that got held back. And I think that, you know, the Snowden disclosures were an important example about how the First Amendment can act as the safety valve for democracy when our other institutions fail to uphold their duties.

RAZ: OK. So, Trevor, you just made a very compelling case, you know, defending James Risen and Edward Snowden. But what about something like WikiLeaks, you know, publicizing the personal emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta? Because so many of those emails had nothing to do with national security. They weren't in the public interest. I mean, do you think that kind of transparency is OK? Or is that an abuse of this idea?

TIMM: Well, I certainly think that we have seen a lot of cases over the past three or four years where people are having their emails hacked left and right, they're showing up on the Internet. And certainly not all of those are in the public interest. But, you know, I do think it is a more complicated question than just should we have seen John Podesta's emails or should we not?

You know, first of all, the person or group that hacked John Podesta certainly committed a crime. And certainly you can make the argument that a lot of those emails shouldn't have been published because they didn't contain newsworthy information. But it is a tenet of journalism that, you know, when you have some of the most powerful people in the world where you have information that pertains to the public interest, often the right answer is to publish that information.

RAZ: But so much of what they published about John Podesta was basically irrelevant personal stuff. Like, it had nothing to do with the campaign or with national security. So why release it?

TIMM: Well, you know, I think there is a difference between government transparency - transparency of elected officials - and the privacy of private citizens who are, number one, not public figures and, number two, should have robust privacy rights. You know, I just want to make clear I'm not arguing that everybody's email should be published on the Internet. In fact, the opposite. I'm a privacy activist. But it is a tough decision that journalists have to make when they are presented with compelling information that would be considered newsworthy by millions and millions of people in the middle of an election campaign. And for them to decide not to publish could have ramifications as well.

And I think all in all, while there certainly are tradeoffs, that that is a good thing that they are now much more aggressive about reporting on public figures. And I'm certainly not arguing that, you know, it's a hundred percent good to be transparent and a hundred percent bad to have total secrecy. What we're arguing for is more transparency than there is now. And often these tradeoffs, in my mind, can be worth it.

RAZ: That's Trevor Timm. He's the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. You can see his full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.