Leakers, Recipients, and Conspirators

Leaks to reporters — and investigations of the leaks that included subpoenas of reporters’ e-mail logs and searches of reporters’ e-mail — have been in the news; see this post by Orin about the AP story and this post by Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic) about the Fox News story. I thought I’d say a few things about the First Amendment issues involved in such matters, especially in response to the Friedersdorf post.

1. To begin with, let me define the problem, and define it broadly: A wide range of laws that bars certain people from revealing certain information that they themselves learned in confidence, having given a promise of confidentiality. To give just a few examples,

  1. Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 793) does this (among other things) for secret defense information.
  2. Federal law does it for confidential income tax information, and many other matters.
  3. Trade secret law does it for certain kinds of business information (some trade secret claims are civil and some are criminal, but this doesn’t matter for First Amendment purposes).
  4. Nondisclosure agreements do the same for other kinds.
  5. Professional regulations and related statutes do this for attorney-client, psychotherapist-patient, and doctor-patient confidences.
  6. Court orders do this for information gathered through discovery in legal cases.

Relatedly, federal law bars people from electronic eavesdropping on cell phone calls, and also prohibits the illegal eavesdroppers from communicating this information to others. This isn’t exactly the same, because the original misconduct here consists not of illegally leaking information to which one has legal access, but illegally accessing the information in the first place. Still, downstream publication of illegally leaked information and publication of illegally accessed information are quite similar in many ways — they all involve information that by law ought not be communicatable, that the original leaker (or illegal gatherer) has no right to communicate, but that he does communicate to third parties who did not themselves illegally leak or illegally gather the information.

2. These laws are generally seen as constitutional, mostly on the theory that they enforce promises of confidentiality, express or implied, that were legitimately extracted as a condition of access to the information (see Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991) and Seattle Times Co v. Rhinehart (1984)), or, in the case of the cell phone interception law, that the underlying acquisition of the information was illegal. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s a reasonable first approximation.

And in any event, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s constitutional to outlaw leaks of government information by those who have promised to keep it secret. I know there are arguments that the government classifies too much information as secret. But for the government to be trusted, whether by taxpayers, sources of information, foreign governments, or other government employees, it has to be able to punish those government employees who promised to keep a secret (whether a tax return or a defense-related document) but then broke that promise.

3. But what about people who never promised confidentiality, and who just receive — without soliciting or prearranging this — information that they know was illegally leaked (or illegally gathered)? Say you’re a reporter, and you get an unsolicited e-mail revealing something important gleaned from a prominent person’s tax return, a copy of an important secret government document, a business plan to create a controversial product or close a plant or engage in a particular marketing strategy, or a tape of an illegal intercepted conversation in which union members are discussing what sounds like a possible plan to engage in violent crime against management. (“If they’re not gonna move for three percent, we’re gonna have to go to their, their homes …. To blow off their front porches, we’ll have to do some work on some of those guys. Really, uh, really and truthfully because this is, you know, this is bad news. (UNDECIPHERABLE).”) May the law bar even such disclosures by downstream recipients, who never promised confidentiality, never themselves engaged in illegal interception of information, and never solicited the breach of a confidence or illegal interception, or conspired in such an action?

There, the matter is not entirely clear. Bartnicki v. Vopper (2001), the illegal interception case from which the quote above is drawn, holds that revelation of the information by these downstream recipients would be protected by the First Amendment, at least if the released information is important enough and if the initial illegality consisted of illegal interception of cell phone calls. But United States v. Rosen (D.D.C. 2006) holds otherwise as to revelation by downstream recipients of classified defense information. Still, there are very serious First Amendment arguments in favor of protecting such further disclosures by these sorts of downstream recipients.

4. There is, though, an intermediate category of speakers. Part of it consists of those who actively solicit criminal or tortious leaks or information gathering, knowing that what they are seeking is information that the leaker has no right to reveal or to gather. “Could you send me this classified document / tax return / secret about your client? I’ll write a story about it that will promote truth and justice / help advance your ideological agenda / get back at your enemies / make you feel important.” “You know, if you illegally taped that phone call and passed it along to me, there could be a great story in it.” “I like the story idea you’re pitching to me, but I need more proof. Your boss probably has documents that demonstrate this; can you rifle through his desk, and send me a copy of whatever you find?” And part consists of those who actively conspire with the leaker to promote the leak, for instance by working out specific plans that would keep the leaker from getting caught, or by providing tools (physical or electronic) that can help the leaker get the information in the first place.

This is what the government is saying James Rosen of Fox News of did — soliciting the leak of classified documents, aiding and abetting the leak by working out means by which the leaker could leak the documents more safely, and generally conspiring with the leaker. (The government isn’t prosecuting Rosen for this, at least at this point, but it is alleging that he did this, since allegation of such criminal conduct by a newsgatherer allows the government to search the newsgatherer’s papers under 42 U.S.C. § 2000aa, the federal statute limiting searches of newsgatherers.)

And it seems to me that this behavior is rightly treated as criminal. Solicitation of crime (see United States v. Williams (2008)), aiding and abetting crime by providing instrumentalities for the crime, and conspiracy to commit a crime are rightly punishable, and I don’t think that the answer should be different when the crime is an illegal leak of information (however newsworthy that information might be).

Glenn Greenwald (The Guardian) argues the contrary, pointing out that publications of leaked information can be valuable to the public, and are a staple of investigative journalism. But I don’t think this suffices to provide constitutional protection to actively soliciting, aiding, or conspiring with someone who is committing a crime. Perhaps the underlying leak shouldn’t be a crime, or perhaps Congress should limit the criminality just to the leaker. But I don’t see that this is constitutionally mandated, given the longstanding understanding that actively participating in criminal conduct can be prohibited as much as the underlying conduct can be. And note that Bartnicki specifically stressed that, in that case, “respondents played no part in the illegal interception” but rather “found out about the interception only after it occurred” and “their access to the information on the tapes was obtained lawfully, even though the information itself was intercepted unlawfully by someone else,” so Bartnicki doesn’t dispose of the aider/solicitor/conspirator case.

I think this distinction between publication by an unconnected downstream recipient and an aider/solicitor/conspirator responds to Conor Friedersdorf’s argument in The Atlantic that Justices Douglas and Black in the Pentagon Papers case “directly addressed and discredited” the government’s theory in the Rosen/Fox News matter, and that “the Obama Justice Department is using a WWI-era espionage law” in the Rosen/Fox News matter “to criminalize journalism in a way that its authors never intended.” It’s true that Justice Douglas’s opinion, joined by Justice Black, took the view that the federal classified defense information statute, 18 U.S.C. § 793(d), didn’t generally apply to downstream publishers:

There is, moreover, no statute barring the publication by the press of the material which the Times and the Post seek to use. Title 18 U.S.C. § 793 (e) provides that “[w]hoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing … or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of theUnited States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates … the same to any person not entitled to receive it … [s]hall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

The Government suggests that the word “communicates” is broad enough to encompass publication.

There are eight sections in the chapter on espionage and censorship, §§ 792-799. In three of those eight “publish” is specifically mentioned: § 794 (b) applies to “Whoever, in time of war, with intent that the same shall be communicated to the enemy, collects, records, publishes, or communicates … [the disposition of armed forces].”

Section 797 applies to whoever “reproduces, publishes, sells, or gives away” photographs of defense installations.

Section 798 relating to cryptography applies to whoever: “communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available … or publishes” the described material. (Emphasis added.)

Thus it is apparent that Congress was capable of and did distinguish between publishing and communication in the various sections of the Espionage Act.

The other evidence that § 793 does not apply to the press is a rejected version of § 793. That version read: “During any national emergency resulting from a war to which the United States is a party, or from threat of such a war, the President may, by proclamation, declare the existence of such emergency and, by proclamation, prohibit the publishing or communicating of, or the attempting to publish or communicate any information relating to the national defense which, in his judgment, is of such character that it is or might be useful to the enemy.” 55 Cong. Rec. 1763. During the debates in the Senate the First Amendment was specifically cited and that provision was defeated. 55 Cong. Rec. 2167.

Judge Gurfein’s holding in the Times case that this Act does not apply to this case was therefore preeminently sound. Moreover, the Act of September 23, 1950, in amending 18 U.S.C. § 793 states in § 1 (b) that:

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize, require, or establish military or civilian censorship or in any way to limit or infringe upon freedom of the press or of speech as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and no regulation shall be promulgated hereunder having that effect.” 64 Stat. 987.

Thus Congress has been faithful to the command of the First Amendment in this area.

But beyond the obvious point that this was just the opinion of the two most-speech-protective Justices on the Court at the time (or perhaps at any time), I think the argument only applies to the “unconnected downstream recipient” publications discussed in item 3. As to the publications by a recipient who solicited, aided, or conspired in the underlying criminal leak, the Douglas/Black statutory argument doesn’t apply, because federal law does cover such behavior: 18 U.S.C. § 2 specifically criminalizes aiding or soliciting a crime, and 18 U.S.C. § 371 specifically criminalizes conspiring to commit a crime. Perhaps there ought to be a First Amendment defense even when those statutes are violated, though I’m skeptical about that. But I don’t see the Douglas/Black statutory argument as relevant here.

5. Finally, just to return to item 1, note that the constitutional question is similar (though not identical) for a wide range of disclosures — and solicitations or conspiracies. If there’s a First Amendment right to solicit, aid, and conspire in leaks of classified defense information, then there’d be such a right to solicit, aid, and conspire in leaks of tax return information, leaks of attorney-client confidences, leaks of psychotherapist-patient confidences, illegal interception of cell phone conversation, illegal breakins into people’s computers, illegal rifling through people’s desks, and so on.