Recent high-profile leaks of supposedly classified national information appear to have set off a wave of high-profile promises to crack down on them.
Consider the current example of John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer and regular consultant for national news media outlets who in January was accused of repeatedly leaking classified information to journalists. The one-time staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including three counts of violating the Espionage Act, and currently awaits trial.
His case marks the Obama administration’s sixth prosecution of a government official for alleged violations of the Espionage Act. The sixth! That’s unprecedented.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama himself has been accused of using leaks to paint his administration in a more positive light; Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who ran against Obama in the last presidential election, has called for a special investigation into such allegations. Just this week, the current Republican presidential contender, Mitt Romney, blasted Obama over the recent spate of leaks, describing them as a “national security crisis.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has also identified classified information leaks as a problem. The chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee is asking for more resources to prosecute those responsible for them.
And last month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed two U.S. attorneys to lead separate FBI investigations into the entire leaky system.
So it’s settled. Our leaders in federal government appear to be in agreement that it’s necessary to crack down on leaks. Let’s just hope that, in their collective zeal, they remember to focus on the sources of those damaging leaks, rather than the journalists on the receiving end of national secrets.
Unfortunately, during a hearing earlier this month some members of a House Judiciary subcommittee indicated that their focus is already diffusing. Speaking to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Rep. Trey Gowdy, for one, reportedly urged federal prosecutors to threaten journalists with jail time for not revealing confidential sources. Another hearing attendee, retired intelligence officer Kenneth Allard, pointed to New York Times reporter David Sanger specifically, questioning whether Sanger had violated the Espionage Act for disclosing information about cyber attacks led by the U.S. against Iran’s nuclear program.
The Espionage Act, which was originally aimed at protecting the nation’s security by protecting information about its military operations, has been interpreted rather loosely and amended repeatedly over the course of its 95-year life – but it has not been, and should not be, used to punish journalists who receive information the government wants kept secret.
Government officials must not be allowed to simply classify anything they deem inconvenient or embarrassing or simply not useful public information. Leaks are often the only tool available to whistleblowers who spot wrongdoing and want to help journalists drag that wrongdoing into the light of public awareness.
Congress must concern itself not only with plugging damaging leaks, but also guaranteeing the free flow of information. In fact, they ought to finally pass a shield law that would provide federal protections to journalists who use confidential sources. Those protections are in place at the state level in the majority of states, including Montana, but journalists remain vulnerable to federal prosecution.
The Espionage Act may be in need of an update, and members of Congress may need to step in to ensure that government employees who leak classified information are held accountable – but they must proceed only with the utmost caution, to ensure that any changes they make do not strip away essential First Amendment protections for journalists.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen