I Hate to Say “I Told You So” (Spying on the Press Edition)

On Friday, I wrote a piece for Mother Jones speculating that government spying on press communications may not be “unprecedented,” as Associated Press head Gary Pruitt put it, but simply rarely disclosed. The rules requiring disclosure of such surveillance, after all, only appear to apply to “subpoenas” for “telephone toll records,” not secret tools like National Security Letters. Even outside the shadowy world of intelligence, as federal magistrate judge Stephen Smith has observed, court orders granting government access to electronic communication records routinely remain secret indefinitely. I suggested that there could be quite a few other cases like the AP story that we’ve simply never heard about, even if the Justice Department scrupulously follows its own rules, because they didn’t involve grand jury subpoenas for phone logs.

It is rare for someone who writes about the intelligence community to have a speculation of this sort confirmed almost instantly, but a report in the Washington Post today is already shining a spotlight on another hitherto unreported leak investigation in which the government obtained a warrant to read the e-mail of Fox News reporter James Rosen. The warrant in that case was sealed for over a year, and appears to have remained unnoticed until today—nearly three years after the search of Rosen’s e-mail was authorized. Why should anyone believe this is the only such case that hasn’t yet come to light?

The Rosen case is especially unsettling because the warrant affidavit suggests that Rosen himself could be subject to prosecution under the Espionage Act, on the grounds that his alleged encouragement to a source to provide classified information amounts to “conspiracy.” The attempt to redefine as crime what is ultimately a routine and necessary part of national security reporting really is rather unprecedented: As the Congressional Research Service has observed, “we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it,” and there “may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult.”

A successful prosecution, of course, is not necessarily the point. The case against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake—who revealed massive waste in the Agency’s deals with intelligence contractors—ultimately collapsed: The information he’d revealed was embarrassing to the government, not dangerous to national security. But Drake’s life had still been shattered, and a clear message sent to any others who might seek to embarrass the government. Reporters are already feeling the chilling effects of the AP leak investigation—and presumably that’s the real aim: Not to jail leakers as an end int itself, but to ensure that government sources are too scared to talk to press without approval.

That might sound like a fine idea if we were really only talking about vital national security secrets whose publication would endanger the United States. But as even top intelligence officials have acknowledged, “overclassification” is rampant in government. Much of the most basic information, without which effective national security reporting would be impossible, is reflexively classified whether or not it poses any realistic security risks, and reporters routinely discuss such information. In practice, that means the government can pick and choose which leakers to go after—and which ones to wink at because they’re serving the administration’s interests.