Our Guest Blogger is Billy Corriher, Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress.
House Republicans want the government to use criminal statutes to prosecute reporters who publish sensitive national security information. In a hearing on Wednesday, the leadership of a House Judiciary Sub-Committee said such actions are needed after a series of New York Times stories included information leaked from government sources. In his testimony, Army Col. Ken Allard accused reporter David Sanger of “systematically penetrating the Obama White House as effectively as any foreign agent” and putting Americans at risk by reporting on the government’s cyber-attacks on Iran.
Journalists from the Times have published important stories with information on the assassination of Osama bin Laden and President Obama’s “kill list” of suspected terrorists. The story of the “kill list,” in particular, is vital information for anyone concerned about the government potentially abusing civil liberties in the “War on Terror.” The administration has placed at least one American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, on the list and killed him in a drone strike. If the Times had not acted, we would know very little about how the “kill list” is composed.
But Republicans charge that publishing leaked national security information is endangering the American public. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) called for subpoenaing journalists and demanding they expose their sources. “You either answer the question or you’re going to be held in contempt and go to jail, which is what I thought all reporters aspire to do anyway. I thought that was the crown jewel of the reporter’s resume, to actually go to jail protecting a source.”
Another Republican suggested the media’s watchdog role is unnecessary because whistleblower laws allow citizens to report wrongdoing to the government. In other words, we don’t need to know anything about our government’s national security actions, because we can trust the government to police itself.
Some even suggested the Obama administration has leaked information for political gain. The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), said the administration could be “weakening our national security and endangering American lives.” Like the “Fast and Furious” investigation, this could end up being another Republican witch hunt for information that could embarrass the Obama administration.
The accusations of intentional leaks seem far-fetched, given that the administration has vigorously prosecuted government employees who leak classified information. The administration has resurrected the World-War-I-era Espionage Act to crack down on leakers, and Attorney General Eric Holder has assigned federal prosecutors to initiate criminal investigations into recent leaks. Republicans should ask Bradley Manning how the administration deals with those who leak classified information.
The stories that alarm Republicans provide vital information on the actions our government takes in the name of protecting us from terrorism. When George W. Bush was president, he faced harsh criticism for abusing executive power in the realm of national security. Bush moderated his administration’s most egregious practices after the public learned of them. Imagine that the Bush administration had instead prosecuted the journalists who exposed Abu Ghraib or the warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
It is fundamental to our democracy that Americans know what their government is doing. Newspapers already use caution in reporting sensitive information, and reporters must be able to do their job without the threat of jail time hanging over them. Our constitution establishes a robust right to freedom of the press. If the government imprisons journalists, it is trampling on the free speech rights that Americans cherish.
When the government sought to stop publication of documents related to the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court wouldn’t let it happen. Justice Hugo Black stated,
In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people . . . . In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.