Judging by the caterwauling of many in the national media, you’d think Orwell’s Big Brother had taken over the White House. The Justice Department’s issuance of subpoenas to press organizations to find out who in the government had leaked classified information to the Associated Press and to Fox News reporter James Rosen has First Amendment purists in an uproar.
The way some of them carry on, you’d think the light of freedom had been extinguished. Writing in London’s The Guardian, indefatigable civil libertarian Glenn Greewald opines that, “It is virtually impossible at this point to overstate the threat posed by the Obama DOJ to press freedoms.”
Media Matters’ normally unflappable Eric Boehlert sounds similarly overwrought: “Whether it was the Department of Justice’s wild overreach in seizing phone records of more than 20 separate telephone lines used by Associated Press editors and reporters, or the Department’s more focused, yet even more troubling, information grab of a Fox News reporter, the practice is wrong and shortsighted. It’s also un-American.”
Un-American, mind you.
Almost needless to say, Republicans sensing an Obama weakness are going along for the ride — even many who thought Bush attorney general Alberto Gonzales’ threat to prosecute New York Times reporters for revealing the existence of a massive NSA eavesdropping operation was a terrific idea.
Over on Fox News, they’re accusing Attorney General Eric Holder of perjury because he told Congress the DOJ wouldn’t prosecute journalists for publishing information, but did sign off on a subpoena arguing that Rosen might have violated the Espionage Act.
Earth to Fox News: As anybody who’s read two John Le Carre novels understands, journalists (or people posing as journalists) have worked as spies and agents provocateur since the invention of newspapers. A press ID isn’t a universal “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Besides, Rosen’s not being prosecuted. The DOJ is using his emails urging a State Department source to “expose muddle-headed foreign policy” by turning over classified intelligence about North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship to prosecute the alleged leaker.
His friends say Rosen’s a wonderful family man. That’s a good thing, because judging by his journalistic tradecraft, he’d be apt to copy his wife and her mother on an email to his mistress.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The way many in the press are hyperventilating, most would apparently have had no problem with a 1944 headline reading: “Allies Plan June 6 Normandy Landing, Sources Say.”
My point is that unless you think the United States has no dangerous enemies and therefore no legitimate national security secrets whatsoever, the content of both disputed stories should trouble you. Nor are the Justice Department’s reasons for prosecuting them obscure or malign.
In a Slate forum, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner, author of “Terror in the Balance: Security, Liberty, and the Courts,” explains: “The May 2012 AP story that’s at issue disclosed that the CIA thwarted a terrorist plot to plant a bomb on a plane flying to the United States from Yemen … “[A]nyone who read the story could infer that U.S. or foreign agents had penetrated al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate. Even if AP delayed publication … the information disclosed may have put the lives of agents in danger or disclosed intelligence methods or simply made foreign intelligence agencies yet again doubt the U.S. government’s ability to keep secrets. The story identifies its sources as U.S. government officials, who clearly violated federal secrecy law.”
As the New York Times later documented, a Saudi intelligence agent infiltrated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He volunteered to carry a newly designed bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner, but delivered it to the CIA instead. The AP story blew his cover, endangering lives and inhibiting the search for the bomb maker himself. Some scoop, eh?
The allegedly terrible violation of the AP’s rights came after a months-long investigation of 550 possible sources. It involved investigators scrutinizing three days of telephone logs to see if possible suspects had talked to reporters. Nobody’s been arrested. You’d hope that even the braggart CIA leaker would be smarter than to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
As for James Rosen and Fox News, the phrase that doubtless caught investigators’ eyes in an otherwise humdrum story about North Korea’s planned responses to U.N. sanctions was “the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea.”
That would be paranoid, nuclear-armed North Korea, which as Reuters columnist Jack Shafer put it, no doubt commenced its own “leak probe that made the U.S. investigation look like the prosecution of a parking ticket.”
Shafer suspects that even Fox would retract the story if it could. My own experience of Washington journalism has persuaded me that the actual practices of news organizations bear little relationship to the high-minded rhetoric they employ whenever their prerogatives are threatened.
Forced to choose, I’d sooner trust my rights and freedoms to an independent judiciary.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.