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Transparency, Secrecy and Retaliation Emerge as Major Issues in Benghazi Coverage

By Margaret Sullivan at the New York Times

When Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, resigned from his post, protesting the torture of prisoners there and political interference that deterred his work, he says he was subjected to a gag order by the Bush administration.

When Gregory Hicks, a veteran diplomat, asked too many questions about what happened behind the scenes in Benghazi, Libya, last fall, he says he was demoted by the Obama administration.

Whistle-blowers come in all shapes and with all political affiliations. What they share, often, is integrity so strong and consciences so unrelenting that they act against their own best interests. Rarely do things turn out particularly well for them, as a recent film by Robert Greenwald made clear.

The failures of government transparency, too, cross party lines. Rooted in political expediency, those failures of transparency know no color, neither red nor blue. And they need to be pointed out and resisted. As author Robert A. Heinlein wrote, “Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny.”

For me, those issues are the fascinating back story of the coverage of the terrorist attack in Benghazi last fall and its aftermath. Government obfuscation, in all its forms, and the drive for honesty and openness, is what’s captivating not only on this subject, but also about coverage of America’s growing drone program and all of its highly secretive military activity of the last decade. (The Times’s Mark Mazzetti’s recent book, “The Way of the Knife,” is important reading on this subject.)

wrote about The Times’s Benghazi coverage on Tuesday, rejecting the idea that it has ignored the subject, as some claim,  but also calling for coverage that is less oriented toward political polarization and more toward digging outwhat is new here and what really happened last September.

The Times did that well in its article on Thursday’s front page. Calling Mr. Hicks’s testimony “riveting,” the article detailed the way in which he was demoted to a desk job when he asked too many questions, apparently, for the State Department’s liking. (The State Department denies that this happened.)

As Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, who hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, wrote on Twitter:

For his part, Colonel Davis offered some perspective, too:

Some news organizations were earlier to this party than others. The Washington Post led its paper Tuesday with an article previewing what Mr. Hicks would say. Meanwhile, other news organizations still seemed to be yawning as late as Wednesday morning, saying again that there was nothing new. And Politico’s Dylan Byers offered this sardonic comment, suggesting much sound and fury in Washington but little to get excited about:

But, as it turns out, there was news. Times readers were avidly following their newspaper’s level of interest and the reports.  Some wrote to me Thursday morning, complaining that it hasn’t gone nearly far enough in its rigor.  But one Manhattan reader, Gordon Kaye, wrote to me saying that he was encouraged by the way the coverage moved more toward substance and away from pure politics:

Early this week, I was jumping out of my skin wondering why the total silence from The Times about the Benghazi hearing.

The initial morning article Wednesday was a bit over the top, explicitly linking the hearings to “the vast right wing conspiracy” that is Mrs. Clinton’s cross to bear. Indeed, Jay Carney cited the article as proof that the hearings were irrelevant.

But my sense is that once the witnesses were revealed to be credible, human, engaged, caring, responsible, the Times reporters seem to react positively. An honest discussion around the issues of transparency, a principle for which The Times proudly stands, and its relationship to security may be taking root.

Mr. Kaye framed the subject extremely well. Whatever the politics here — and there’s undeniably plenty of that — there are also deeper issues of government secrecy, the culture of retaliation against truth-tellers and the tension between national security and transparency.  These deserve a full airing and energetic scrutiny. It was heartening to see those crucially important issues getting major attention Thursday on The Times’s front page.