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A Cell Of One's Own

Sayeth the Associated Press:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Sunday he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information, citing an obligation to national security.

The nation's top law enforcer also said the government will not hesitate to track telephone calls made by reporters as part of a criminal leak investigation, but officials would not do so routinely and randomly.

"There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility," Gonzales said, referring to prosecutions. "We have an obligation to enforce those laws. We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected."

As Walter Pincus points out, "[Gonzales] was referring to the 1917 Espionage Act, which made it a crime for an unauthorized person to receive national defense information and transmit it to others."

Reaction: NRO's Stephen Spruiell writes, "I still think jailing journalists is the wrong approach, politically and legally, and doesn't solve the more serious and clear-cut problem of government officials leaking classified information about national-security programs in order to undermine them. Prosecute the leakers and you send a much stronger signal without the First-Amendment complications."

Here's one lefty blog's take:

Apparently the mindset of this administration is such that they believe reporters are willing to commit an act of treason in order to embarrass the president or show that they are breaking the law.

This is a natural result of the bunker mentality: if you're not with us, you're against us, and therefore anyone who questions the president or his actions is a traitor.

That's just plain scary.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the AP that the 1917 Espionage Act had never been used to prosecute journalists for publishing information. "I can't imagine a bigger chill on free speech and the public's right to know what it's government is up to — both hallmarks of a democracy — than prosecuting reporters," she said.

This seems to be a shot across the bow from Gonzales designed to make media outlets think twice before putting out classified information. (He made the statements on ABC's "This Week.") But I don't think it's going to make much of a difference. Media outlets are constantly weighing the appropriate course of action when it comes to sensitive information. Sometimes they hold stories for fear that they could put Americans at risk. Sometimes they publish classified information if they think it is sufficiently significant. One can debate whether or not the media handles these decisions well, or whether it's right for journalists to have this responsibility at all. But with the stakes so high, I suspect that it's unlikely the threat of a highly-publicized jail term would be enough of a factor, in most cases, to sway a decision.

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