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Weak on leaks

Why prosecute two small-fry lobbyists but let the New York Times endanger national security?

May 21, 2006|Gabriel Schoenfeld | Gabriel Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary magazine.

LATELY, THE U.S. government has been leaking like the Titanic after it struck an iceberg. Every day seems to place a new and highly classified government secret exactly where it does not belong: before the public eye. What is the Bush administration doing about this inundation? Alas, precisely the wrong thing. Two contrasting cases tell the story.

In August, two officials of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, will stand trial for "conspiring to improperly transmit information related to the national defense" to members of the American media and to a foreign diplomat. In bringing this action, the Justice Department seems to be signaling a get-tough policy against leaks. But the signal is certain to be misunderstood, for seldom has the department prosecuted a more problematic case.

The AIPAC men, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, contend (and the government does not dispute) that, in their receiving information over lunch and via telephone from a Pentagon employee named Lawrence Franklin, no classified documents changed hands but some classified information was imparted orally.

The defendants further say they were unaware that the official conveying this information to them was not authorized to do so. Nor were they aware of what exactly was classified and what was unclassified in what the government official told them. They thus did not know, and had no way of knowing, that they were breaking the law when they passed on what they had learned.

At the very least, this seems to be a plausible defense. The two men are charged under Section 793 of the Espionage Act. This law has long been recognized as one of the most sloppily drafted in our nation's history, and Section 793 is particularly vague. To obtain a conviction under this provision, prosecutors must show, among other things, that the defendants acted "willfully." Given the problem of applying that term to this particular set of facts, the AIPAC men stand a good chance of acquittal. Indeed, the case should be dismissed outright before it goes to trial.

Contrast the government's effort to prosecute here with its non-handling of another leak. At a preliminary hearing in the AIPAC case, Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for one of the two defendants, pointed out that James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times, won "the Pulitzer Prize ... for doing what my client has been indicted for."

In December, Risen was the author, with another New York Times reporter, of a front-page story that disclosed one of our government's most sensitive secrets in the war on terrorism -- the fact that, in the aftermath of 9/11, the National Security Agency was intercepting calls coming into and out of the U.S. involving suspected terrorists.

President Bush called this disclosure a "shameful act." But, as Lowell suggested, it also may have been a crime. And if it was a crime, why are the AIPAC men now facing the possibility of up to 10 years in a federal penitentiary while Risen and his colleagues are left to bask in Pulitzer glory?

Unlike in the AIPAC case, the information uncovered and passed on to the world by the New York Times concerns communications intelligence (or "comint," in the jargon). This is an area of acute sensitivity. In 1950, partly in response to an egregious disclosure of communications intelligence by the Chicago Tribune during World War II (suggesting that the U.S. had successfully broken Japanese military codes), Congress passed a law making such disclosures a special crime.

One of the more extraordinary features of this comint provision is that it was the fruit of a compromise, drawn with the very purpose of protecting public discussion of national defense material from more draconian restrictions. In 1946, a joint congressional committee investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor had urged a blanket prohibition on the publication of government secrets. But Congress resisted, choosing instead to carve out an exception in the special case of communications intelligence, which it described as a category "both vital and vulnerable to an almost unique degree."

With the bill narrowly tailored in this way, the comint statute not only passed in Congress but, astonishingly in light of contemporary attitudes in the media, won the support of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Unlike Section 793 of the Espionage Act, this comint statute is a model of clarity. If you publish classified information pertaining to communications intelligence, you have broken the law; it is nearly as simple as that.

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