Was newspaper series a threat to lives and security?

It’s normal for readers to react after The Post runs a big story. But many weighed in before last week’s publication of “Top Secret America,” the three-part series detailing the enormous national security buildup since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After word spread through government agencies that publication was imminent, readers implored The Post not to reveal the names of companies doing classified work on contract.

“You’re jeopardizing not only the jobs, but the lives of people like myself that go into an office every day to protect the security of this nation and the lives of its people,” one contractor said in an e-mail.

Criticism continued after publication began Monday. “I think this behavior by The Post is very close to meeting the legal test for actual treason,” wrote Jerry Jasper of Chantilly, who worried that his workplace might be “targeted by The Post for destruction by al-Qaeda or other enemies of the United States.”

Major news organizations often come under fire when they disclose classified information. But “Top Secret America” was different. The Post took hundreds of thousands of public documents and created a massive database, available at topsecretamerica.com, that provides information on nearly 2,000 companies and an array of government organizations engaged in top-secret work. An editor’s note accompanying the series said, “Every data point on the Web site is substantiated by at least two public records.”

Using this “mosaic” approach to aggregating individually harmless slivers of information, The Post created a composite of the immense national security apparatus and invited readers to home in on its individual parts. They can search online by name and location and even the type of work being performed.

The Post allowed government officials to see the Web site in advance and express concerns. The editor’s note said, “One government body objected to certain data points on the site and explained why; we removed those items.” Another objected to the entire Web site. That was “unhelpful,” said Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who co-authored the series. “It’s not a reasonable discussion . . . when you come up with a legitimate public issue and their answer is: ‘We just don’t want people to read a story about that.’ ”

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said the unnamed agency expressed a “general concern that putting this information in one place would enable people to know information that previously resided in practical obscurity.”

He declined to reveal details of discussions with the government but stressed that “we made the decisions on our own.” Out of what he termed a “public safety” precaution, The Post curbed the capabilities of its interactive Web site. For instance, the Google-powered mapping function limits the degree to which readers can pinpoint many locations.

Still, did The Post provide too much?

“From my point of view, The Post erred on the side of nondisclosure,” said Steven Aftergood, a noted government secrecy expert with the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists. “I would be surprised if you could find a single security professional who would argue that this series constituted a threat either to national security or to any part of individual facilities.

“The primary threat to these facilities is not from external attack, but from insiders who are either committing thefts or manipulating information systems,” he said.

But John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, disagreed. The Post’s database “has given readers the CliffsNotes” to national security information, he said. “I would not have done it.”

“You can say that all of this data is publicly available,” he said, but The Post’s database is “doing the work that the adversary would have to do.”

McLaughlin agreed that foes could use the same public information to create their own composite. “But why help them? Why help confirm for them what they may conclude? Why reinforce their analysis?”

Over the years, The Post has revealed classified information when it feels disclosure is in the public interest. But it also occasionally withholds information. For instance, stories on troop movements and covert operations have been delayed or even canceled.

Each decision involves balancing public benefit with potential harm. With “Top Secret America,” the thumb on the scale favors publication. The Post exercised caution. And the scope of the nation’s intelligence apparatus after Sept. 11 — with attendant questions of redundancy, waste and oversight — clearly is a topic of public debate. Transparency like this can enhance the quality of that discussion. And that can lead to greater security.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on July 25, 2010.

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