THERE ARE already too many countries in the world where the idea of a free press is a lie, or a joke - where journalists face repression if they challenge the powers that be. This week, we learned that the list of these countries might grow even longer: The United States is threatening to sign up.
On Monday, The Washington Post published a story about the Obama administration's ongoing crackdown on leakers. This administration has been very hostile to government officials who leak information, having prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than any other presidential administration.
But this particular Post story had a chilling new twist: In the course of an investigation into the leak of classified information, the government tracked the movement of Fox News reporter James Rosen in and out of the State Department, checked the timing of his calls with a State Department adviser, got a search warrant for some of his personal emails, and described him in an affidavit as "an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator" in the leak of classified information.
In other words, it's not just the leaker who the Department of Justice believes broke the law in this case. It's the journalist, too.
According to the affidavit, Rosen (unnamed, but it's him) corresponded with a State Department adviser, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, in an attempt to get him to disclose classified information.
In other words, he did investigative reporting.
He eventually published a story revealing that the CIA had a source inside North Korea, though it's the solicitation for information at issue in the affidavit.
This is very bad. No journalist has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information, much less receiving or seeking it (and no interpretation of the statute making those actions illegal has ever been upheld). That's as it should be. The press should show discretion about publishing information that could put people in danger. But if it were illegal to seek or publish information the government doesn't want the public to know, the press could only tell the public about things the government wants it to know. Freedom of the press -and democracy - would become a joke.
Nor is it comforting that Rosen hasn't been charged with anything. For one thing, simply endorsing the premise that a journalist could break the law by seeking classified information sets a terrible precedent. For another, this news comes on the tail of the revelation that the Department of Justice secretly subpoenaed Associated Press phone records to investigate another leak.
Government employees who leak information are sometimes breaking the law. But the fact that more and more information is being "classified," and more and more leaks are being regarded as violations of the Espionage Act, suggest an ultimate goal that goes far beyond protecting national security. What we're seeing, instead, is a creeping effort to shut down access to information, and a growing willingness to use any measure available to accomplish this goal.