Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Can Reporters Committ Treason By Doing Their Jobs?

It was an incendiary news report about a top-secret government eavesdropping program that sparked punitive legislation from Congress and calls for treason prosecution from admintration officials.

But, as University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley noted a month ago in a letter to U.S. House members, government officials in 1986 eventually got over an NBC report that an accused spy may have tipped the Soviets to a submarine-based listening effort and stories on intercepts of Libyan government communications.

Back then, CIA director William Casey wanted to prosecute news organizations for treason and U.S. Sen. Ted "bridge to nowhere" Stevens wanted to pass a law requiring those convicted of espionage to forfeit all property tied to the crime -- meaning news outlets found guilty might have to surrender their businesses to the government.

And now that least one Congressman has called for the New York Times to be prosecuted on charges of treason -- just one month after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to rule out such a prosecution for the newspaper's revelations on domestic spying by the National Security Agency -- Kirtley wonders if we have not traveled back to the future in a striking way.

"It's kind of spooky that almost exactly 20 years ago this happened...(and) although the espionage laws have never been used to prosecute the press (in America), that's not to say someone, somewhere, might not try," she said. "And if we are going to allow the prosecution of the press for publication of certain facts, what we've done is create an official Secrets Act. I have to think that criminalizing certain types of information is not what the founders of this country had in mind."

But in the wake of stories last week in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times detailing a global effort to track terrorist funds, some politicians and pundits were advocating exactly that -- with the New York Times taking the brunt of criticism as the lead news organization in reporting the story and for its perceived history as a symbol of liberal news bias.

"The New York Times Just Doesn't Give a Damn About National Security" read the headline on a dispatch from the conservative Media Research Center advocating the Times be prosecuted for treason. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King -- who once accused the Times of colluding with then-Presidential candidate John Kerry to bolster his arguments against the Iraq war -- said the newspaper was "more concerned about a left-wing elitist agenda than it is about the security of the American people." Even local radio personality Tedd Webb advocated charging "anybody who derails a top secret government program designed to protect us" with treasion and