03 Feb 2006

Did the Times Break the Law?

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They sure did. Gabriel Schoenfeld has a must-read article in the upcoming issue of Commentary, discussing the legal context of the New York Times’ decision to run the NSA electronic surveillance story last December:

The Times has led the pack in deploring Libby’s alleged leak, calling it “an egregious abuse of power” equivalent to “the disclosure of troop movements in wartime,” and blowing it up into a kind of conspiracy on the part of the Bush administration to undercut critics of the war. That its hysteria over the leak of Plame’s CIA status sits oddly with its own habit of regularly pursuing and publishing government secrets is something the paper affects not to notice. But if the Plame case reveals a hypocritical or partisan side to the Times’s concern for governmental secrecy, it also shows that neither the First Amendment nor any statute passed by Congress confers a shield allowing journalists to step outside the law.

The courts that sent Judith Miller to prison for refusing to reveal her sources explicitly cited the holding in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), a critical case in the realm of press freedom. In Branzburg, which involved not government secrets but narcotics, the Supreme Court ruled that “it would be frivolous to assert . . . that the First Amendment, in the interest of securing news or otherwise, confers a license on . . . the reporter to violate valid criminal laws,” and that “neither reporter nor source is immune from conviction for such conduct, whatever the impact on the flow of news.”

The Plame affair extends the logic of Branzburg, showing that a journalist can be held in contempt of court when the unauthorized disclosure of intelligence-related information is at stake.10 Making this episode even more relevant is the fact that the classified information at issue—about which Judith Miller gathered notes but never published a single word, hence doing no damage herself to the public interest—is of trivial significance in comparison with disclosure of the NSA surveillance program, which tracks the surreptitious activities of al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. and hence involves the security of the nation and the lives of its citizens. If journalists lack immunity in a matter as narrow as Plame, they also presumably lack it for their role in perpetrating a much broader and deadlier breach of law.

Hat tip to Scott Johnson at Power Line.

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