Press Prosecutions, Free Speech, and You
The Teixeira leaks underline that the current battle line for the First Amendment runs through the as-yet unresolved Assange case.
Why hasn't the U.S. government arrested Washington Post journalist Shane Harris for publishing the highly classified documents related to the war in Ukraine and U.S. spying on its allies that were leaked by Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira?
The documents contain significant revelations. Among other secrets, they show that the CIA recruited human agents privy to the closed-door conversations of world leaders; they also revealed eavesdropping that shows a Russian mercenary outfit tried to acquire weapons from NATO ally Turkey to use against Ukraine, explains what kind of satellite imagery the United States uses to track Russian forces, and makes clear U.S. and NATO have special forces on the ground inside Ukraine.
The question of why Shane Harris is not in jail has a complex answer with a long history. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government-written history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act (the same law under which Jack Teixeira has been charged).
A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after initial excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper via prior restraint. In the end, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ever since, the media have published national security secrets as they found them.
Law professor Steve Vladeck points out that
although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause. The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.
The Supreme Court left the door open for the prosecution of journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has since kept the feds exercising discretion in not prosecuting the press—a delicate dance around an 800-pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy.
The closest an American journalist ever came to being thrown in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. They then accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen. After a lower court ordered Risen to testify and disclose his source under threat of jail, the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and an infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the First Amendment implied a “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the Free Press Clause.
In the end, the Obama administration, fearful of public opinion, punted on Risen and set precedent extra-judicially. Waving a patriotic flag over a messy situation, then-attorney general Eric Holder announced that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and wasn’t punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into prison for three and a half years. To avoid creating a precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government set a different precedent and stepped away from the fight.
That's why Shane Harris of the Washington Post isn't under arrest right now. For traditional media American journalists like Shane Harris, the Risen case was a turning point.
Meanwhile, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange is under arrest, rotting away in his fifth year in a British prison fighting extradition to the United States. There are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world—is Assange himself a journalist like Risen, or a source for journalists like Sterling was alleged to be? There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist and whether a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and published online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden; his status as a journalist or publisher has never been challenged by the government.
Assange isn’t an American, so he is vulnerable. He is unpopular, drawn into America’s 21st-century Red Scare for revealing the DNC emails. He has written nothing alongside the primary source documents on Wikileaks, has apparently done little curating or culling, and has redacted little. Publishing for him consists of uploading what has been supplied.
The government would argue Assange is not entitled to First Amendment protections simply by claiming that a mouse click and some web code isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) of the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to national defense without authorization, would apply. He would be guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep mine shaft of Washington before him: no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online primary source journalism would be made extinct.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
And that matters. Wikileaks sidestepped the restraints of traditional journalism to bring the raw material of history to the people. Never mind whether or not a court determined disclosure of secret NSA programs that spied on Americans was truly in the public interest. Never mind the fact that, when the New York Times gets a phone call from the President, it decides not to publish something. Never mind how senior government officials are allowed to selectively leak information helpful to themselves. Never mind what parts of an anonymous technical disclosure a reporter understood well enough to write about. Here are the raw materials of history, the cables, the memos, the emails, the archives themselves.
Others can write summaries and interpretations if they wish (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange and his sources traitors), or you as an individual can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind about what the government is doing. Fact checks? There are the facts themselves in front of you. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools and freedoms never before available until the internet created them.
Allowing these new tools to be broken over the meaning of the words journalist and publishing will stifle all of what's left of the press. If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, the government can then turn that precedent into a weapon to aggressively attack the media’s role in national security leaks. Is a reporter, for example, publishing a Signal number in fact soliciting people to commit national security felonies? Will media employees have to weigh for themselves the potential public interest, hoping to avoid prosecution if they differ from the government's opinion? The Assange case may prove to be the topper in a long-running war of attrition against free speech.