COMMENTARY: Secrets

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As far back as the American Revolution, government officials were giving supposedly secret information to the newspapers. MTSU Professor of Journalism Dr. Larry Burris explores this in today's commentary...

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VERBATIM:

When Thomas Paine was the secretary of the Congressional foreign affairs committee, he was also a well-known newspaper columnist. But when he leaked details of secret arms negotiations with the French, Congress considered the security breach so serious that Paine was forced to resign, as was the president of the Congress, Henry Laurens. Plus, the newspaper editor who ran the stories was hauled before Congress to reveal his source.

Only a few years later, in 1848, a New York newspaper reporter, John Nugent, leaked details of the secret treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Nugent, of course, didn't just pick up the treaty at the government print shop; a government official gave it to him. Nugent refused to tell the Senate where he got the treaty, and he was put under arrest, but later released.

Jump ahead to June 1942, and President Roosevelt threatened to put the Marines in charge of the "Chicago Sunday Tribune" after the paper hinted the U.S. had broken a Japanese code before the battle of Midway. Curiously, it was just a couple of weeks ago an appellate court ordered the government to release information about the investigation into the 75-year-old leak.

Julian Assange, Chelsey Manning and Edward Snowden are all names that have been connected with recent leaks of secret information.

What many people apparently don't realize is reporters who get this information don't simply walk into a federal office and pick the material up. It has to be given to them by an official who knows about the information, knows how important it is, and has made a decision that its release wouldn't be all that dangerous.

So rest assured, the secrets that really matter are safe. The secrets that aren't so secret? Well, you may very well see them on the evening news or in tomorrow's newspaper.

I'm Larry Burriss.

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