Lawmakers caution against targeting journalists in security leak crackdown

As Congress plans to craft new laws to crack down on national security leaks in the wake of a series of high-profile disclosures, lawmakers say they aren’t looking to target the journalists who reported and published the leaked information.

Attempts to re-write laws over classified information are nothing new, but reaction to the latest national security leaks have a different tone toward the media than ones during the Bush administration.

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“The potential backlash against the media has so far been diverted into a backlash against the White House,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s not the media that is out of control; it is supposedly the White House that is exploiting these stories for partisan gain.”

Aftergood said that the current situation is a contrast from the 2005 New York Times report about warrantless wiretapping, when “there was a push in conservative circles to indict the New York Times for publishing the stories.”

The current focus on leaks stems from bipartisan outrage over a series of stories in recent weeks, culminating with a New York Times report that the U.S. had launched a cyberattack against Iran. Other stories that lawmakers have cited include reports on a terrorist “kill list,” expanded drone operations and the disclosure of a Yemini double agent who infiltrated al Qaeda.

The leaks have become a political battle, with Republicans accusing the White House of disclosing the information to help boost President Obama’s reelection chances, and they’ve called for a special counsel to investigate. 

Democrats have rejected the GOP claims that the White House was involved, and have thrown their support behind two U.S. attorneys appointed to investigate by Attorney General Eric Holder.

Disagreement over the media’s role, however, does not fall so neatly along partisan lines.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last week questioned the judgment of the Times for publishing the Iran cyberattack story, saying that it harmed American national security.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been the White House’s most vocal critic on the leaks, said he did not fault the Times for publishing the story, only the officials who provided them the information.

Some lawmakers have keyed in on the media, like Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who gave a Senate floor speech Tuesday questioning whether leaks occurred because of administration officials’ excessive contact with the media.

At a joint press conference last week, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was not ruling out that the committees would look at changing the laws for questioning journalists in leak investigations, though she said the topic had yet to be discussed.

Asked about the new legislation Thursday, Feinstein said it was too early to talk specifics. But she said she wasn’t focused on journalists as the problems with the leaks.

“I don’t think the issue is journalists — the issue is talking to journalists,” Feinstein said. “My general feeling is that the problem isn’t the journalist…it’s the culture to talk.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was only interested in laws that crack down on leakers.

“Cracking down on leakers is one thing — cracking down on journalists is a whole other thing,” Grassley said. “I think you have to be very careful what you do with journalists in those instances, even though I don’t appreciate what was written.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also said this week that he was focused on the source of the leaks.

“I don’t know how to go after the journalists who print it, but we should surely go after the people who leaked it,” Levin said. “That’s what the focus should be and I’m not sure that our laws are tight enough when it comes to the people who did the leaking.”

Aftergood said that Congress attempting to crack down on leaks has happened plenty before — President Clinton vetoed a bill in 2000, for instance, that would have made any unauthorized disclosure of classified information a felony — he said the bipartisan environment is a new development in this case.

“I think it’s entirely possible that the current leak anxiety will produce some kind of legislative result, but I worry about its contents,” he said. “There’s a perennial complaint and an unfulfilled desire on the part of officials to turn off the spigot, but from our point of view, the spigot produces more valuable material than damaging material.” 

Journalist Judith Miller was caught up in the big leak investigation during the George W. Bush administration, over CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity being unmasked. Miller spent three months in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

McCain said this week that he didn’t have an opinion on whether the current investigators should try to question the journalists who published the leak stories. “That’s up to the investigators,” McCain said. “Not for me to describe.”

Times reporter David Sanger, who wrote the stories about the Iranian cyberattack and “kill list,” seemed bemused about all the focus on who leaked the information during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday.“

Only in Washington,” he said.