Will Justice Prosecute Journalists?

That was one of the questions in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday at which Deputy U.S. Attorney Matthew W. Friedrich testified. The Washington Post reports:

Friedrich, in his opening statement, confirmed that the Justice Department was prepared to investigate and prosecute leaks, but referred to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's recent statement that the "primary focus is on the leakers of classified information, as opposed to the press."

When Friedrich confirmed that the department thought that journalists or "anyone" could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information, Specter asked specifically about whether the law could be applied to reporter James Risen of the New York Times, the newspaper that published an article in December about the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program.

"Obviously, Senator, I can't comment as to any particular case or specific matter," Friedrich said. He added that espionage laws "do not exempt . . . any class of professional, including reporters, from their reach."

Specter then asked, without specifying a particular case, whether the department, under Gonzales or former attorney general John D. Ashcroft, ever considered prosecuting a newspaper or reporter for publishing leaked classified information.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for me to give an indication one way or another, and I hope people don't read anything into my answer one way or another," Friedrich said. But after a short lecture from Specter, he added that it was his "understanding" that there were historical examples of officials considering whether to prosecute journalists.