The Coalition Column

Bush Administration Asserts Right to Prosecute Those Who Possess Secret Files

AHA Staff, April 2006

On January 30, 2006, the Bush administration stated in a court filing that journalists can be prosecuted under current espionage laws for receiving and publishing classified information. "There is plainly no exemption in the statute for the press," stated the Justice Department brief that was filed in response to a motion to dismiss charges against two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The lobbyists reportedly received classified information during conversations they had with government officials, one of whom told the two men that they were receiving "highly classified ‘agency stuff'." That official subsequently pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act.

The government asserts in the brief that lobbyists "have no First Amendment right to willfully disclose national defense information." But the government went on to say that "we recognize that a prosecution under the espionage laws of an actual member of the press for publishing classified information leaked to it by a government source would raise legitimate and serious issues and would not be undertaken lightly, indeed, the fact that there has never been such a prosecution speaks for itself." We now know where lobbyists and journalists stand in the eyes of government prosecutors, but exactly what the status is of historians and scholars such as Matthew Aid remains unclear.