October 23, 2020

Press freedom vs. national security

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Press freedom vs. national security

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Much of the Washington press corps is in an uproar over two leak probes initiated by the Justice Department, one involving the Associated Press, the other Fox News reporter James Rosen. In both cases, phone records were seized, and in Rosen’s case, the government also obtained through a search warrant the e-mail communication he had with a source in the State Department.

In both cases, the government’s stated goal was to find the leaker. The Obama administration has prosecuted twice the number of leakers, six in all so far, than all recent presidents combined. The number says something about the administration’s zeal in uncovering those whom it believes breach national security. It also is emblematic of the times we live in, not only in the proliferation of threats and their nature, but also in the vastly increased and unbridled media industry that interacts with government.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it does not protect a reporter who divulges classified information. A media shield law, if passed by Congress, would allow reporters to shield sources without fear of going to jail, like New York Times reporter Judith Miller did during the Bush administration, and it would give the press greater freedom to quash subpoenas, but it wouldn’t be a free pass to print or broadcast information that the government deems dangerous to national security.

Reporters generally are skeptical of government claims that information must be protected. Too much information is kept out of the public eye under the guise of national security, but that doesn’t mean the government is always wrong. And in the AP case and Rosen cases, the administration makes a compelling argument that the Justice Department acted within the law, the Patriot Act of 2012 and/or the Espionage Act of 1917.

President Obama at a news conference last week talked about the need to find the proper balance between freedom of the press and the responsibility he has to guard the nation’s secrets. There will always be tension between the two, and the facts as we know them are typically not black and white, and can lead to fair-minded people reaching different conclusions.

Critics of the administration’s actions claim the administration initiated the AP phone seizure out of pique that the news organization printed a story about foiling a terrorist plot that the White House wanted to break itself. But Walter Pincus, a veteran investigative reporter, writes in the Washington Post that the leak to the AP in April 2012 “not only broke the law but caused the abrupt end to a secret, joint U.S./Saudi/British operation in Yemen that offered valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

It was inevitable this would trigger an FBI probe, and that there would be consequences. “Given past leak investigations to the Bush and Obama administrations, journalists at the AP and elsewhere know they could face scrutiny. Like it or not, they are part of a crime. The leaker or leakers had taken an oath under the threat of prosecution to protect the information,” Pincus concludes.

The outcome of the AP leak investigation is unclear, but the source that shared classified information with Rosen about North Korea’s nuclear program, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, then working as a contractor at the State Department, was indicted in 2010 for disclosing national defense information. No action has been taken against Rosen, and none is likely, but the description of him by the government as “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator in the crime” has prompted accusations that the administration is trying to criminalize journalism.

Journalists are justified in their concern that the administration’s actions will have a chilling effect on the willingness of sources to provide information. But there is a line between freedom of the press and freedom to divulge classified information, and the government, like it or not, has the upper hand on where to draw that line.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

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