The Wall Street Journal editorializes on the Espionage Act prosecutions of two former AIPAC employees.
The prosecution of government "leaks" that began with the Valerie Plame case has already sent one reporter to jail and limited the ability of all journalists to protect their sources. But now things are getting worse, as the Justice Department is prosecuting a pair of lobbyists for doing what journalists do every day.
While decrying the prosecution, the WSJ avoids beatifying the press for its actions.
We realize that few of our readers have much sympathy for the press these days, and with ample cause. As we recently wrote after the Swift terror financing disclosure by the New York Times, we think the press sometimes has an obligation not to publish everything it knows. By revealing security secrets for no apparent reason other than its own partisan and ideological agenda, the Times has invited a government backlash against the entire press corps.
But these Espionage Act prosecutions are dangerous to more than the media. The statute is notably vague, meaning it is ripe for selective prosecution and misuse against political or partisan enemies. On any given day in Washington, numerous classified details are whispered across lunch tables and many of them make it into print or on the air. Many of these "secrets" aren't truly vital to national security but have been classified for political reasons, or because information is power and many bureaucrats like to control the flow of information. Is Justice going to investigate and prosecute every one of those leaks? The potential for political abuse is obvious.
And in the end, the WSJ picks up on the Washington Post's Espionage Act as U.S. Official Secrets Act" meme.
More broadly, this use of the Espionage Act amounts to the imposition, by executive fiat, of a U.S. version of Britain's Official Secrets Act. That law criminalizes the publication--and even the re-publication--of certain kinds of information. This kind of "prior restraint" on the press is alien to the American legal tradition of First Amendment rights. If Attorney General Alberto Gonzales thinks we need an Official Secrets Act, then he ought to say so and ask Congress to debate and pass it, rather than let his prosecutors impose one by the back door.