This week I killed a story about the battle against Improvised Explosive Devices after a senior military officer told me it contained information that would be helpful to the enemy. I didn't find his argument about how it would help the enemy very persuasive, but because there's a war on I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I've done that a number of times over the years, and each time it's turned out that going with the story wouldn't have caused any harm. It's always a difficult decision, made more difficult by the fact that it always seems to happen late in the day when you're under deadline pressure. When I killed the story on Thursday, it was 5:30 – an hour to air – and I left the Evening News broadcast without a lead story which they had been counting on all day. Not a good career move.
So how do you decide that a story contains sensitive information that shouldn't see the light of day? In war, you can make an extreme case that almost any accurate information about the U.S. military is news the enemy can use. A story about the Army being "stretched too thin" or even "broken" by the pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be said to encourage the enemy to fight on. A story I did this week about new pictures of abuse from Abu Ghraib could be said to increase the likelihood of violence against American soldiers in Iraq. Indeed, the Pentagon made exactly that case when it went to court to try to prevent the photos from being released under the Freedom of Information Act. But that's too hypothetical for me. The story I killed dealt with specific techniques and how well they were or weren't working against IEDs. It wasn't as simple as "you report this and American soldiers will die," but I could see how it might conceivably be news the enemy could use to make their IEDs more effective. It wasn't clear cut, but it was close enough. So how do you decide that a story contains legitimate secrets? It's like the famous definition of pornography – you know it when you see it.