I noted yesterday that the apparent government strategy to indict Assange as co-conspirator rather than disseminator of the leaked cables would be still be highly problematic, and the danger to the First Amendment no less grave. Since then, there have appeared articles by several well known writers and legal experts who have come to the same conclusion.
Here’s Jack Goldsmith:
I’m not so sure this path avoids awkward questions. Charging Assange as a conspirator to Manning’s leak might distinguish the Times in the wikileaks case. But it would not distinguish the Times and scores of other media outlets in the many cases in which reporters successfully solicit and arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials. Prosecution of Assange on this theory would therefore raise awkward questions about why DOJ does not bring charges against the American media for soliciting classified information on a regular basis. It would be a fateful step for traditional press freedoms in the United States. Indeed, unless I am missing something, it seems that a successful prosecution of Assange for conspiracy to leak would have broader and more corrosive implications for press freedoms than a successful prosecution under the ambiguity-riddled Espionage Act.
Reporters seek classified information all the time in telephone conversations, in private meetings and other contexts. Just Wednesday, the New York Times carried a front page story from Elizabeth Bumiller describing two classified National Intelligence Estimates on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Does anyone think she was entirely passive in this leak? That the reports, or some summary of them, simply arrived on her desk or in her inbox and she did nothing either to solicit them or to seek more details about them after receiving them? Frankly, if she didn’t at least do the latter, she wouldn’t be doing her job.
It seems to me if the Justice Department takes the approach the Times describes, the issue of classification might fall away altogether. But that could potentially make the First Amendment questions even more profound. A reporter who asks a county clerk for a document that is traditionally sealed might be committing a crime. And with virtually all information stored on computers these days, almost anyone who asks a government employee a question the employee might not need to know the answer to might be conspiring in an unauthorized intrusion into a government information system.
Journalists are not merely passive recipients of information they receive from their sources. It make take weeks of negotiations (and rounds of drinks at the Mayflower Hotel) to get a source to agree to provide sensitive information, and work out the details of the disclosure. Agreements not to reveal a source who provides sensitive information are just that, agreements. If prosecutors wanted to, they would argue that such agreements were part of a conspiracy to leak classified information under the Espionage Act or related statutes.
Journalists should be very worried about the conspiracy theory that the Justice Department is considering. It puts them (and their jobs) in serious danger.
Very rarely do investigative journalists merely act as passive recipients of classified information; secret government programs aren’t typically reported because leaks just suddenly show up one day in the email box of a passive reporter. Journalists virtually always take affirmative steps to encourage its dissemination. They try to cajole leakers to turn over documents to verify their claims and consent to their publication. They call other sources to obtain confirmation and elaboration in the form of further leaks and documents. Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau described how they granted anonymity to “nearly a dozen current and former officials” to induce them to reveal information about Bush’s NSA eavesdropping program. Dana Priest contacted numerous “U.S. and foreign officials” to reveal the details of the CIA’s “black site” program. Both stories won Pulitzer Prizes and entailed numerous, active steps to cajole sources to reveal classified information for publication.