Jacob Sullum

The Justice Department, which was complicit in the National Security Agency's circumvention of the statutory limits on surveillance of e-mail and phone calls, has not shown much interest in getting to the bottom of that apparent crime. It recently abandoned an internal probe of the legal advice DOJ lawyers gave the NSA, ostensibly because its investigators could not get the requisite security clearances.

 But that does not mean the Justice Department is ignoring the revelations concerning the NSA's warrantless surveillance. This week Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested the government might prosecute New York Times reporters and editors for informing the public about the program. (Disclosure: I worked with one of those reporters, Eric Lichtblau, at The Cornell Daily Sun.)

 Gonzales probably had in mind a 1950 amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 that says "whoever knowingly and willfully ... publishes ... any classified information ... concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States ... shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both." On its face, this section covers what The New York Times did.

 But it also covers what I'm doing right now: discussing, online and in print, a communication intelligence activity that remains classified. The law seemingly applies to everyone who has publicly acknowledged the existence of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, including the Bush administration's defenders.

 Another example of the law's broad reach: The June issue of Commentary includes a letter from Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, who reports, based on a historical document he has, that the NSA's 1972 budget was $65.2 million -- a fact "concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States" that is still classified. "Should I therefore be prosecuted?" he asks. "Should Commentary be penalized for publishing the information in this letter?"

 The problem illustrated by Aftergood's questions would be compounded if the Justice Department applied to journalists a provision of the Espionage Act under which it is prosecuting two former pro-Israel lobbyists for passing along classified information they gleaned from a conversation with a Defense Department analyst. Although it's a matter of dispute whether this provision applies to publishing, the information it covers -- anything "relating to the national defense" that "the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation" -- goes far beyond communication intelligence.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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