A FREE press in a democracy demands a delicate balance. The First Amendment means the media must have the right to inquire without hindrance. The government has a legitimate interest in keeping some national security information secret. When these come into conflict, the balance often has been struck this way: The media are free to pursue secrets, but it is up to those in government to keep them. When the media come into possession of information that, if disclosed, could be damaging, the government can plead the case for secrecy — and the media generally are open to persuasion.
Up to now, there have been no prosecutions of reporters under the 1917 Espionage Act, a reflection of this balance in action.
The balance has been upset by an affidavit filed by the FBI in a criminal investigation into a national security leak. Special Agent Reginald B. Reyes asked a court to grant a search warrant for the e-mails of a reporter, James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News, on grounds that Mr. Rosen is a “co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor” of the leak of classified information. The target of the criminal probe is Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who in 2009, when the leak occurred, was a State Department arms expert with a security clearance. The leak concerned intelligence information about North Korea.
What did the journalist do to become a potential criminal co-conspirator? According to the FBI agent, he “asked, solicited and encouraged” his source to disclose sensitive information. The reporter did this “by employing flattery” and playing to the “vanity and ego” of Mr. Kim. In other words, the journalist was doing what reporters do. Unfortunately, a judge signed off on this flimsy search warrant.
Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a controversial search warrant that identified Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “possible co-conspirator” in violations of the Espionage Act and authorized seizure of his private emails, a law enforcement official told NBC News on Thursday.
The disclosure of the attorney general’s role came as President Barack Obama, in a major speech on his counterterrorism policy, said Holder had agreed to review Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve journalists.
"I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable," Obama said. "Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs."
Rosen, who has not been charged in the case, was nonetheless the target of a search warrant that enabled Justice Department investigators to secretly seize his private emails after an FBI agent said he had "asked, solicited and encouraged … (a source) to disclose sensitive United States internal documents and intelligence information."
Obama's comments follow a firestorm of criticism that has erupted over disclosures that in separate investigations of leaks of classified information, the Justice Department had obtained private emails that Rosen exchanged with a source and the phone records of Associated Press reporters.
This all leads to a natural and obvious question: If "[j]ournalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs," then why does the attorney general still have his job?
There is another scandal that is hobbling the Obama administration. And it has even stirred the New York Times editorial board to outrage:
With the decision to label a Fox News television reporter a possible “co-conspirator” in a criminal investigation of a news leak, the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.
The latest reported episode involves James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News. In 2009, Mr. Rosen reported on FoxNews.com that North Korea planned to launch a missile in response to the condemnation of its nuclear tests by the United Nations Security Council. The Justice Department investigated the source of the article and later indicted Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a State Department security adviser, on charges of leaking classified information. Mr. Kim pleaded not guilty.
Normally, the inquiry would have ended with Mr. Kim — leak investigations usually focus on the source, not the reporter. But, in this case, federal prosecutors also asked a federal judge for permission to examine Mr. Rosen’s personal e-mails, arguing that “there is probable cause to believe” Mr. Rosen is “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the leak.
An affidavit filed with the judge made it clear that Mr. Rosen’s comings and goings at the State Department were carefully monitored. It said further that he tried to elicit information by “employing flattery and playing to Mr. Kim’s vanity and ego.” That would hardly be a first in the relationship between journalists and government officials, and, certainly, it is not grounds for a conspiracy charge. Though Mr. Rosen was not charged, the F.B.I. request for his e-mail account was granted secretly in late May 2010. The government was allowed to rummage through Mr. Rosen’s e-mails for at least 30 days. (The New Yorker reported Tuesday that Justice Department officials also seized phone records associated with White House staffers and Fox News as part of the Kim case.)
Michael Clemente, the executive vice president of Fox News, said on Monday that it was “downright chilling” that Mr. Rosen “was named a criminal co-conspirator for simply doing his job as a reporter.” Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, added on Tuesday that treating “routine news-gathering efforts as evidence of criminality is extremely troubling and corrodes time-honored understandings between the public and the government about the role of the free press.”
The Justice Department has gone so far as to seize the phone records of Rosen's parents. Because, of course, they were in on the conspiracy. Or something.