"Only an interrogated executive is an executive that's responsive to the people . .. I'm not about the glamour-journalism we have today . . . [I prefer] results to glitz."
Scott Armstrong, in a Media Giraffe Project interview, April, 2006
Profile by Sarah P. Randle
Scott Armstrong did not take the most direct route to his notable, decades-long career in media. He entered Yale University at age 17 with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on empiricism (he recalls helping a young President Bush with his schoolwork, noting 'there wasn't much going on up there back then, either.' Personal circumstances and the Vietnam War intervened, however, leading him instead to law school and work investigating government programs. This investigatory work first set him on the path to news reporting by drawing him into the underbelly Washington politics. Armstrong played an instrumental role as an investigator on the Senate Watergate Committee, and it was one of his interviews with a White House Staff member that led to the discovery of Nixon's White House taping system. Soon after, he began work as a reporter for The Washington Post.
A first-hand witness of much of the goings-on of the Watergate case, Armstrong still remains critical of the way the events were reported and sees this failure as related to some of the larger failures of journalism.
"Most of what was printed about Watergate was incorrect," he says, something he believes stems from the fact that journalists are forced to go to the "lowest common denominator" of knowledge to deliver the news. According to Armstrong this often leads to disinformation when complex situations are inaccurately distilled. He pinpoints the reasons for this problem as stemming from journalists' poor understanding of the systems they're reporting on and the severe time pressure they operate under. "The limiting factors of good reporting are time, resources, and the ability to develop a precise empirical view of a situation," says Armstrong.
He notes that these factors are compounded by the centrist, politically defined vocabulary commonly used to discuss political issues, which is far-removed from the language of the Constitution.
Armstrong occasionally stepped outside of the reporting world to circumvent these limitations. For instance, in 1979 he collaborated with renowned author Bob Woodward to write The Brethren, an intensely detailed account of the Supreme Court in the early 70's. However, Armstrong's work with newspapers became his bread and butter for over a decade. Armstrong established himself with the Post, "working 18-hour days and writing more inches of text than anyone else around." He focused on providing deep looks into the situations he reported on, covering national and international events.
After many intense years of reporting, Armstrong shifted his to other projects in the 80's. In 1985 he helped found the National Security Archive, at George Washington University also see below which are now the world's largest non-government library of declassified documents. The development of these archives, according to Armstrong, was meant to push the government away from unnecessary secrecy and foster open understand of past events.
"My big theory is that the structure of government is not conspiratorial rather, it's bureaucratically bound by practical policies and needs, which can lead to secrecy," he says. One of his hopes in his work has always been to make the public recognize the interconnectivity of all of the issues discussed in the news, rather than compartmentalizing them. To illustrate this idea, he gives the example of someone who believes in small government but wants to ban abortion. "You have to ask them 'who is going to take care of those children, educate them?' That will be hard to do without the government stepping in. Carrying ideas out to their logical conclusions is something we often fail to do in the discourse surround politics."
Armstrong is currently self-employed, working in a company he has incorporated under the name of "Information Trust." He is essentially a consultant, offering his services in cases he where he sees his expertise could be of use. In 2001, his efforts were instrumental in getting Clinton to veto the Official Secrets Act, which would have criminalized information disclosures in an unprecedented manner. He often appears as a so-called talking head on news shows, championing transparent government and a free flow of information.
Armstrong maintains that, regardless of changes in technology and medium, journalists must continue to focus on making the government accountable to the people. "Only an interrogated executive is an executive that's responsive to the people," he says. He intends to continue his own work for this cause in situations that suit his talents. "I'm not about the glamour-journalism we have today," he says, preferring "results to glitz."
Excerpted from the POGO website:
The nonprofit Project On Government Oversight (POGO) will give its 2002 "Beyond the Headlines Award" to Scott Armstrong, an investigative journalist and executive director of the Information Trust. In giving the award, POGO particularly recognizes Mr. Armstrong's tireless efforts to make government more transparent and open to the public. In 2001, Mr. Armstrong played an instrumental role in stopping the "Official Secrets Act," a provision that would have criminalized information disclosures by federal employees or whistleblowers for the first time in U.S. history. Thanks in large part to Mr. Armstrong's efforts, President Clinton vetoed the "Official Secrets Act" last year.
Mr. Armstrong is the founder of the National Security Archive, a research institute that collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Mr. Armstrong is the co-author with Bob Woodward of The Brethren, a narrative account of the Supreme Court from 1969 through 1976, and assisted Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as a researcher and writer on The Final Days. He has been inducted into the FOIA Hall of Fame and awarded the James Madison Awarded by the American Library Association.
Excerpted from The National Security Archive website (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html):
The National Security Archive combines a unique range of functions in one non governmental, non-profit institution. The Archive is simultaneously a research institute on international affairs, a library and archive of declassified U.S. documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a public interest law firm defending and expanding public access to government information through the FOIA, and an indexer and publisher of the documents in books, microfiche, and electronic formats. The Archive's approximately $2.3 million yearly budget comes from publication revenues and from private philanthropists such as the Carnegie Corporation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. As a matter of policy, the Archive receives no government funding.
The National Security Archive was founded in 1985 by a group of journalists and scholars who had obtained documentation from the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act and sought a centralized repository for these materials. Over the past decade, the Archive has become the world's largest non governmental library of declassified documents. Located on the seventh floor of the George Washington University's Gelman Library in Washington, D.C., the Archive is designed to apply the latest in computerized indexing technology to the massive amount of material already released by the U.S. government on international affairs, make them accessible to researchers and the public, and go beyond that base to build comprehensive collections of documents on specific topics of greatest interest to scholars and the public.