21. THE PRESS TAKES THE PENTAGON SECRECY PLEDGE

On Tuesday, December 14, 1982, the Department of Defense held a briefing for reporters about Soviet military capabilities.

But before starting the briefing, DOD officials asked reporters to sign a secrecy agreement -- a one-page form titled "DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE SECRECY AGREEMENT."

The agreement stipulated that the reporters never disclose "in writing, broadcast or any verbal discourse" the information they would hear. It also required the journalists to report to the Pentagon any effort made by others to obtain the sensitive information.

Not surprisingly, the reporters refused to sign.

Then, in a scene that some participants later said had an "Alice in Wonderland" atmosphere, the reporters and DOD officials spent 45 minutes haggling over the conditions for handling information that could never be revealed to the public.

After this bizarre exchange, the Defense officials said they would accept a verbal pledge -- the journalists' word of honor -- to abide by the secrecy agreement.

Incredibly, all the reporters present agreed. And the briefing was held.

If, indeed, this was not a hoax perpetrated on the press, there are at least two important questions to be addressed here.

First, why would a group of professional journalists capitulate to such an extraordinary demand?

Second, of course, is the story itself. What did the Department of Defense tell those reporters that is so sensitive that they can never report it "in writing, broadcast or any verbal discourse" and, in fact, would betray any colleagues who might try to find out what the story is?

Finally, while we might speculate, it would be interesting to know what motivated Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to indulge in such a transparent effort of media manipulation.

SOURCE:

San Francisco Chronicle, 12/15/82, "Pentagon Asks Secrecy Pledge," by New York Times.