You’d be forgiven for not believing it, but there was a time when seizing a reporter’s private e-mails and accusing him in court documents of possibly aiding and abetting a criminal conspiracy for doing his job would have been unthinkable.
By now, we’re well acquainted with the Obama administration's unprecedented prosecutions of suspected leakers, and how that pursuit has ensnared journalists and jeopardized their ability to protect their sources’ identities. But this anti-leaking zeal didn’t begin in 2009 with the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The course was set in 2003, when an influential appeals court judge opined that journalists’ supposedly legal right not to reveal their sources, known as “reporters’ privilege,” was complete bunk. The privilege—or at least lawyers’ perception of it—was the constitutional cornerstone that backed up journalists’ pledges never to reveal the names of people who talked to them in confidence. But now that the legitimacy of the privilege was questioned, prosecutors were emboldened to acquire reporters’ confidential information using tactics they wouldn’t have dared try in a prior era.
In a piece for the magazine three years ago, I wrote about how federal prosecutors have flexed their legal muscles over the past decade, and how the undermining of the reporters’ privilege helps explain why the Obama administration is so keen to go after leakers and is willing to turn journalists into unwitting, and unwilling, tools of investigations. Here are the key moments in the timeline.
July 2003: Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit writes an opinion explaining why the court had ruled against a group of authors who refused to hand over tape recordings of interviews they’d done with a source. Unexpectedly, Posner argues that the landmark Supreme Court decision in Branzburg v. Hayes that supposedly established reporters’ privilege actually did no such thing.
Journalists don’t have an “absolute” privilege to protect their sources, Posner writes. Instead, courts need to “make sure” that a media subpoena “is reasonable in the circumstances. . . . We do not see why there need to be special criteria merely because the possessor of the documents or other evidence sought is a journalist.”
Posner lowers a gate separating the government and the press. And within a few years, federal prosecutors are climbing over it.
December 2003: US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, acting as a special prosecutor in the investigation of who may have leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame to news reporters, subpoenas five journalists to testify before a grand jury. Judith Miller of the New York Times refuses to comply and eventually spends 85 days in jail.
“Plamegate” becomes a watershed for the press, in large part because Miller fought the subpoena and lost. This becomes a precedent that weakens reporters’ assertion of privilege where the underlying leak, in this case identifying a clandestine CIA officer, might involve a crime. In retrospect, then-Times executive editor Bill Keller wonders whether the paper should have tried to strike a deal with prosecutors that would have prevented Miller from having to fight the subpoena and go to jail.
February 2006: The Justice Department investigates the source of a New York Times article that revealed a secret program of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency. In testimony before a Senate panel, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is asked whether the administration had considered “any potential violation [by the newspaper] for publishing that information.” Gonzales replies, “Obviously our prosecutors are going to look to see all the laws that have been violated. And if the evidence is there, they’re going to prosecute those violations.”
This is the first time any administration official has hinted that the government might prosecute journalists under criminal law for reporting on national security information.
March 2006: A pair of FBI agents shows up at the Bethesda home of Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor and former investigative reporter for CNN. They demand that Feldstein hand over decades-old documents that he’d been researching for a book on investigative columnist Jack Anderson, who’d died a few months earlier. When Feldstein asks what crime the FBI was investigating, an agent replies, “Violations of the Espionage Act.”
The agents say they’re investigating a case involving two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who’d been indicted for receiving classified information. The FBI wants Feldstein to tell them the names of reporters who’d worked for Anderson and who held pro-Israel views and had pro-Israel sources.
Feldstein doesn’t hand over the documents or assist the FBI. He later writes that the agent’s actions “suggested that the bureau viewed reporters’ notes as the first stop in a criminal investigation rather than as a last step reluctantly taken only after all other avenues have failed.”
May 2006: A federal prosecutor subpoenas two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle who’d seen transcripts of confidential grand-jury testimony in an investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), which produced performance-enhancing drugs for athletes. The reporters linked well-known players to steroid use, including players who publicly proclaimed that they’d never taken drugs. The government wanted to know who had violated the rules of grand-jury secrecy and shown court documents to the reporters.
The BALCO case tests the limits of internal guidelines that Justice Department lawyers are supposed to follow when subpoenaing members of the media. No national-security issue was at stake, nor was knowing who leaked the grand-jury information, which was a crime, necessary to establish the guilt or innocence of anyone involved in steroid use. The subpoenas were approved by Attorney General Gonzales.
Mark Corallo, the Justice Department spokesman under Gonzales’s predecessor, John Ashcroft, later says the prosecutors had broken the department’s rules. “This was an abuse of power,” Corallo tells the PBS news program Frontline. “. . . The government just did not meet the standards set by their own guidelines. . . . This one doesn’t even come close.”
The reporters, who had once been personally thanked by President George W. Bush, a former baseball team owner, for their public service journalism, ultimately avoid going to jail when their source identifies himself.
August 2006: A freelance videographer, Joshua Wolf, is sent to jail after he refuses to turn over video footage of a protest in San Francisco in which a police car was burned and an officer was injured. Wolf spends 226 days in prison. He is released when he finally agrees to turn over his uncut footage.
January 2008: The Justice Department subpoenas New York Times reporter James Risen, demanding to know the source of information for a chapter in his book, State of War, about a botched CIA operation against Iran. The government had been investigating the case for two years, and had considered trying to halt the book’s publication, in 2006. Risen resists the subpoena, which eventually expires at the end of the Bush administration.
February 2008: Newspaper reporter Toni Locy is held in contempt of court for refusing to identify her sources for a series of articles in USA Today. Locy had written in 2001 about Steven Hatfill, a virologist who was identified as a “person of interest” in the anthrax attacks, allegations that later proved false. Hatfill sued the government for violating his privacy and subpoenaed several journalists to find out who in the government fingered him as a suspect.
The Justice Department, which is defending the US government in the civil suit, argues that Judge Reggie Walton “should reject this attempt at expanded discovery” and quash Hatfill’s subpoena. Walton disagrees, underscoring judges’ new willingness not to recognize the reporter’s privilege, even in non-criminal cases. He rules that for every day Locy refuses to testify, she must pay $5,000 in penalties out of her own pocket. The decision is stayed pending appeal, and a court eventually vacates the judge’s ruling, but only because Hatfill had settled his case with the government, rendering Locy’s testimony needless. The appeals court did not reach any decision about the reporters’ privilege.
April 2010: The Justice Department subpoenas New York Times reporter James Risen a second time. Judge Leonie Brinkema questions why the government needs a subpoena when there appears to be enough evidence of who the leaker is to secure an indictment. She requires prosecutors to get the sign-off of Attorney General Eric Holder. Risen continues to fight the subpoena, and eventually Brinkema limits the questions the government may ask him in court. Risen appeals to keep that decision in place. The case could end up in the Supreme Court.
May 2010: A federal judge authorizes a search warrant for the personal e-mails of Fox News reporter James Rosen in connection with the suspected leak of classified information about North Korea a year earlier. An FBI agent swears in an affidavit in support of the warrant that “there is probable cause to believe” that Rosen is violating a criminal law on disclosing “national defense information” by acting as “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator” with a State Department official suspected of being his source. Rosen is reportedly not informed that the government wants to search his e-mails and has no opportunity to resist the warrant.
May 2013: The Justice Department informs the Associated Press that it had subpoenaed the phone records of several AP journalists. The records, obtained months earlier, include numbers dialed to and from phone lines in four AP offices, possibly implicating the communications of 100 journalists, over a period around two months. The Justice Department appears to be investigating an AP story on a successful CIA operation to thwart a bombing plot hatched in Yemen.