Remarks to the Washington Center's "Politics and the Media" Seminar Students

Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
The Washington Center
Washington, DC
January 11, 2011

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.  I am delighted to be here to speak with you and through C-SPAN to the viewing audience around the United States. The daily briefings I do are on C-SPAN every day and feature snappy repartee with reporters who are a professional and talented group, who have been covering foreign policy in some cases longer than I have been in and around government.  And this is my 34th year in some facet of national security policy.

I came to appreciate the difference between the State Department Press Corps and journalists who cover other agencies or branches of the government. I was answering a question on NATO and casually threw in what I thought was a nice garnish. I said simply that NATO was the most successful military alliance in history.

“Really,” the dean of the State Department Press Corps thundered. “What about the Hanseatic League?”  Now, I come to the podium each day well briefed and prepared to engage on a wide range of foreign policy challenges – Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and the Middle East Peace Process, not so much on the Hanseatic League, which held its last formal meeting in 1669, 120 years before the establishment of the Department of State. I still believe I was right, since the Hanseatic League was more of an economic alliance, while NATO is of course a security alliance.

What I do every day is to enunciate the United States Government view on world affairs. As events permit, I look to see if we can find some humor in a situation. When President Obama was selected to receive the Nobel Prize, I said it was better to have these kinds of accolades thrown our way than shoes. When President Hugo Chavez suggested Venezuela would pursue a space program, I suggested he stick with terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial pursuits. President Chavez called me ridiculous – by name – high praise indeed. The other day, Iran invited diplomats from a handful of countries, but not the United States, to visit some nuclear facilities as an alternative to full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. I termed it the Magical Mystery Tour.

Today we use a variety of media to communicate to governments and people around the world – formal briefings that are covered by traditional media, as well as social media to bypass governments and communicate directly with people. And Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie late last year recognized me for the Tweet of the Year, in part because they couldn’t believe the State Department Spokesman actually had a sense of humor.

After President Carter traveled to Pyongyang to rescue an American citizen jailed there, following President Clinton who brought home two journalists the year before, I tweeted that the American people should heed our travel warnings. After all, we only have so many former Presidents.  In a shameless attempt at self-promotion – I am currently hundreds of followers behind our UN ambassador and my friend, Susan Rice – feel free to follow me @pjcrowley.

In my view, success in the 21st Century depends on effective governance. A free and vibrant press plays an important role around the world in the development of civil society and accountable governments. As a general rule, the freer the press, the more transparent and more democratic the government is likely to be.  In the context of this seminar, Media and Politics, think of the places around the world recently where existing governments are clearly guilty of substantial election fraud, fraud that either skewed the results to a significant degree, or stole elections outright. This involves the election in Iran in June 2009, where the government harassed the traditional media as they covered the election and the fraud that was evident, as well as the opposition that very effectively used social media during the campaign, and has refused to be silenced to the present day.

Dictatorships understand the power of the media, where in Burma, the ruling junta held an election in November for which it refused to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to participate, nor allowed outside media to cover. The result was a kind of election laundering, where the existing military government attempted to use the election to transform itself into a civilian government. But it lacks the legitimacy that only civil society, backed by a vibrant press, can bestow.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of present-day examples, from Cote d’Ivoire to Belarus, where the media continues to document the actions of repressive governments that in one case refuses to accept the results of an election that it did not expect to lose, and in the other has literally jailed every opposition figure that dared run against Europe’s last dictator. 

The former Yugoslavia is my best example of a case where the investment in independent media helped to transform a country and we hope over time a region, contributing to the dynamic that led to the end of the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, and his transfer to The Hague where he died in prison while facing charges for crimes against humanity.  We also know that the media can be used to incite ethnic violence, as we saw tragically in the 1990s in Rwanda. We continue to have concerns regarding state-controlled, particularly in the Middle East, that continue to foment religious tension across the region.

No one is a greater advocate for a vibrant independent and responsible press, committed to the promotion of freedom of expression and development of a true global civil society, than the United States. Every day, we express concern about the plight of journalists (or bloggers) around the world who are intimidated, jailed or even killed by governments that are afraid of their people, and afraid of the empowerment that comes with the free flow of information within a civil society. 

Most recently, we did so in the context of Tunisia, which has hacked social media accounts while claiming to protect their citizens from the incitement of violence. But in doing so, we feel the government is unduly restricting the ability of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views in order to influence government policies. These are universal principles that we continue to support.  And we practice what we preach. Just look at our own country and cable television. We don’t silence dissidents. We make them television news analysts.

Some in the human rights community in this country, and around the world, are questioning our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom in the aftermath of WikiLeaks.  I am constrained in what I can say, both because individual cables remain classified, and the leak is under investigation by the Department of Justice. But let me briefly put this in context and then I will open things up for questions.  WikiLeaks is about the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It is not an exercise in Internet freedom. It is about the legitimate investigation of a crime. It is about the need to continue to protect sensitive information while enabling the free flow of public information.

We remain arguably the most transparent society in the world. The American people, through innovations including C-SPAN, are a well-informed citizenry, which is crucial to a functioning democracy. We can have a discussion about how well our democracy is functioning, and whether political figures are spending more time pandering or posturing on television than actually governing.

And, of course, in the aftermath of the tragedy last weekend in Tuscon, we pray for the recovery of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. I am not going to speculate about what led this troubled young man to do what he did, but we should recommit ourselves to improve political discourse going forward so we can sustain a functioning democracy that is important both in the context of our national interests, but in our collective ability to solve global challenges for the benefit of our people and others.

This transparency relies upon a vibrant independent fourth estate that serves as a vital check and balance in our democracy. The First Amendment created deliberate tension in the relationship between the media and government. This tension helps to sustain effective oversight of government.  When I stand up each day and answer questions about U.S. policy and actions, in a small way, I am part of this process where government is accountable to its people. And, trust me, the system works. I have the fan mail to prove it, particularly when I appear on FOX. Some FOX viewers now have me on speed dial.

Transparency does not mean there are no secrets. Whether you are a government or a business, there is proprietary information that is vital to your day-to-day function. Coca-Cola has its secret formula. Google has its search algorithm. Their success is based on these secrets.  As a government, we are no different. In the conduct of our diplomacy, we have confidential interactions around the world every day. These conversations, with government officials, civil society activists, business people and journalists, help us make sense of the world and inform our policy-making. These confidential exchanges are rooted in our values and serve our national interest. They are based on mutual trust, trust that the confidence will not be betrayed.

Someone inside our government violated their sworn oath to protect the national interest and protect classified and sensitive information that is an inherent part of the conduct of our national security policy. We can debate whether there are too many secrets, but no one should doubt that there has been substantial damage in the unauthorized release of a database containing, among other things, 251,000 State Department cables, many of them classified.

We have encountered leaks before, and worked through them. We will do so in this case as well. But this case is different, in its volume and scope. Unlike the past, where someone might have smuggled out a document or file about one subject and given it to one reporter, in this case, the database contained documents that touched every part of the world, every relationship we have around the world and almost national interest.  The reaction has varied country by country, but human nature being what it is, there will be impact for at least a time. Governments will be more cautious in sharing sensitive information. Why is this important? It was the sharing of information last year that enabled the United States, working with other governments, to intercept a plot to blow up cargo aircraft over Chicago.  If less information is shared in the future, our policies and our actions could be less effective.

The release of this information has placed hundreds of people at risk, in many cases the very civil society activists that WikiLeaks has suggested it wants to empower around the world. We interact regularly with people in all walks of life who are trying to reform repressive societies, both inside and outside government. In some cases, their names have been withheld, but many have been exposed and are now at risk. The mere fact that classified documents now reside in unclassified and less secure databases means that this information can be intercepted by a foreign security service. So the fact that only 2,700 documents have been publicly released is small comfort to the people who have been needlessly exposed.

We are tracking hundreds of people around the world who we believe, in one way or another, are now in danger - reaching out to as many as we prudently can and helping ensure to the extent we can that they remain safe. The founder of WikiLeaks has claimed that no one has lost his or her life due to these releases. That is true as far as we know, but that is not the only measure of the impact.

Real lives and real interests have been compromised by what has been done here. We are doing everything we can to mitigate that impact, but as the Secretary of State said this week, it will take years to move beyond it.

We are a nation of laws, and the laws of our country have been violated. Since we function under the rule of law, it is appropriate and necessary that we investigate and prosecute those who have violated U.S law.  Some have suggested that the ongoing investigation marks a retreat from our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom.  Nonsense.

These are universal principles and our commitment is unwavering. These freedoms have always coexisted with the rule of law and the application of laws is in no way intended to deny access to readily available information or silence legitimate and necessary political discourse. But our belief in Internet freedom does not include the right to use the Internet to illegally inflict harm. We must exercise these rights responsibly.

WikiLeaks reminds us of the on-going challenge of how to protect vital information, whether personal or classified information, while also promoting the free flow of information that can empower people to form global communities and change the world for the better. We believe it is possible and necessary to do both.