Can journalists really be prosecuted for publishing national security secrets? In the wake of a series of New York Times stories revealing highly sensitive counterterrorism programs, that question is increasingly the talk of newsrooms across the country, and especially one newsroom located on West 43rd Street in Manhattan.
Last December, in the face of a presidential warning that they would compromise ongoing investigations of al Qaeda, the Times revealed the existence of an ultrasecret terrorist surveillance program of the National Security Agency and provided details of how it operated. Now, once again in the face of a presidential warning, the Times has published a front-page article disclosing a highly classified U.S. intelligence program that successfully penetrated the international bank transactions of al Qaeda terrorists.
Although the editors of the Times act as if prosecution is not a possibility, not everyone concurs. One person who is still mulling the matter over is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Asked in late May about the prospect of prosecuting the Times and others who publish classified information, he by no means ruled it out. "There are some statutes on the books," he said, "which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility."
Unsurprisingly, given what is at stake, even that tentative opinion elicited a fire and brimstone denunciation from the Times. An editorial on May 24 dismissed as "bizarre" the attorney general's "claim that a century-old espionage law could be used to muzzle the press." It has long been understood, added the newspaper, that the "overly broad and little used" Espionage Act of 1917 applies only to government officials and "not to journalists."
Schoenfeld cites Section 798 of Title 18, "the so-called Comint statute."
Unambiguously taking within its reach the publication of the NSA terrorist surveillance story (though arguably not the Times's more recent terrorist banking story), Section 798 reads, in part:Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information . . . concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States . . . shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both [emphasis added].
This law was passed in 1950 as a result of World War II. In the early 1930s, a book was published "offering a detailed account of U.S. successes in breaking Japanese diplomatic codes." The result of the book? Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese responded to the book's revelations by investing heavily in the construction of more secure codes. Thanks to the ensuing Japanese progress, the report concludes, the United States was unable to "decode the important Japanese military communications in the days immediately leading up to Pearl Harbor." In other words, the aerial armada that devastated our Pacific Fleet had the skies in effect cleared for it by leaks of classified information.