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Exposure

Did the New York Times break the law with its wire-tapping story?

11:00 AM, Jan 24, 2006 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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IS THE New York Times a law unto itself? When the Times published its December 16 exposé of the secret National Security Agency electronic surveillance of al Qaeda-related communications, reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau noted that they had granted anonymity to the "nearly a dozen current and former officials" who were the sources for the story. Risen and Lichtblau stated that they had granted these sources anonymity "because of the classified nature of the program." Implicit in the Times's rationale is the recognition that leaks of such classified information are illegal.

That recognition is, of course, correct. Section 793 of the federal espionage law prohibits authorized persons possessing "information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation . . . " from disclosing it to persons not entitled to it. Section 798 of the espionage law prohibits the disclosure of classified communications intelligence activities to unauthorized persons "in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States . . . " The violation of these statutes is a felony. Because their disclosures to the Times may fall within these statues, the "current and former government officials" referred to in the Risen/Lichtblau story sought the promise of confidentiality from the Times to protect their identity.

Assuming that these statutes apply to the leaks involved in the NSA story, has the Times itself violated the statutes and committed a crime? The answer is clearly affirmative. Section 798, for example, makes knowing and willful "publication" of the proscribed information a crime. Moreover, under the basic federal aiding and abetting statute--18 U.S.C. S 2--in willfully helping the leakers publish their disclosures, the Times is as culpable as they are, and punishable as a principal.

Which raises the question: Does the First Amendment afford the Times immunity from criminal liability for its conduct? In New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971; otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers case), the Supreme Court held that it was presumptively unconstitutional for the government to restrain the publication of classified information. In separate opinions concurring with or dissenting from the order allowing the Times to continue publication of its Pentagon Papers stories, however, a majority of the justices contemplated that the Times could be held responsible for any violation of the law involved in publishing the stories.

Indeed, in their concurring opinions, Justices Douglas and White cited and discussed Section 798 as the prototype of a law that could be enforced against a newspaper following publication of information falling within the ambit of the statute. Justice White noted, for example:

The Criminal Code contains numerous provisions potentially relevant to these cases [against the Times and the Washington Post.] Section 797 makes it a crime to publish certain photographs or drawings of military installations. Section 798, also in precise language, proscribes knowing and willful publication of any classified information concerning the cryptographic systems or communication intelligence activities of the United States as well as any information obtained from communication intelligence operations. If any of the material here at issue is of this nature, the newspapers are presumably now on full notice of the position of the United States and must face the consequences if they publish. I would have no difficulty in sustaining convictions under these sections on facts that would not justify the intervention of equity and the imposition of a prior restraint. . . .