Roosevelt was apoplectic. He demanded that Attorney General Francis Biddle have McCormick arrested. He didn't -- Biddle knew that even under wartime censorship rules it would be a tough case to make. Further, Adm. Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, believed that any acknowledgement that the story was correct might lead the Germans to change their codes, a risk he was unwilling to take. In the end, the Japanese stopped using their JN-25 code, but Germany continued to use theirs. Americans were at greater risk in the Pacific but were scoring victories in Europe, and McCormick continued to enjoy the profits of his highly successful newspaper.
The problems of prosecution that Biddle and King saw in the McCormick-code case is one that bedevils us today, and it will continue to as long as we mistake who the law-breakers are and insist that the government exact retribution for what most of us consider to be deplorable -- if not illegal -- behavior. Setting aside the discussions of World War II censorship restrictions, the serious criminal wasn't McCormick or even his reporter: It was the "leaker" -- probably in Hawaii -- who divulged the highly sensitive information about breaking the Japanese code.
Unfortunately, under the guise of protecting a "free press," our courts have now all but decided that the "leakers" warrant equal protection with those who print the illegally handed-over classified information. To compound the crime, our media make "heroes" of those who "courageously" obtain and publish classified information with no regard for the consequences -- even when it means increased danger or death for American servicemen. Wars seem to spawn such counterfeit champions.
There is no bravery in Seymour Hersh publishing the detailed information he claims came from uncorroborated, "high-ranking," anonymous sources about American efforts to collect intelligence in Iran concerning its nuclear weapons program. If the consequence of the story is that American commandos or spies die in Iran, who but their families will know or care? It's happened before.
In 1975, Phillip Agee published the names of active and former CIA operatives. Among those named was Richard Welch, then the CIA station chief in Greece. Within weeks, Welch was dead -- assassinated by Marxist "November 17" terrorists in Athens. His son, a fellow Marine, CIA Director William Colby and I met his body as it was carried off the C-141 at Andrews Air Force Base.
It takes no courage for William Arkin, the author of the forthcoming book "Code Names," to print for all the world to see coded information and classified data that has been used to keep America more secure. In an effort to hype the sales of his book, Arkin maintains that some of what he publishes is still classified. But he's protected unless he violated a nondisclosure agreement and our beleaguered Justice Department chooses to pursue the matter.
That, too, has happened before. In 1977, Frank Snepp, a former CIA officer, thought he could ignore nondisclosure agreements he had signed and ride the First Amendment to fame and fortune. He published "Decent Interval," an anti-Vietnam War screed containing classified information he had sworn to keep secret. He lost the court battle and forfeited all profits, but escaped the prison term he so richly deserved.
And therein lies the greater part of the solution to protecting sensitive information in this new world disorder. Forget prosecuting publishers. Don't bother pursuing phoneys like Hersh. Insist that those who have access to classified information abide by the nondisclosure agreements they have signed. Use polygraph tests to randomly check on compliance -- just like we check for drugs. When government employees break the law, indict them. And as for the rest of us, just don't buy trash like the "Al Qaeda Reader."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.