Matters of natural security versus freedom of the press have forced the American public twice this month to ask if actions taken by the government were correct, or at least justified.
At issue are Department of Justice investigations of The Associated Press and a Fox News reporter for possible violations of national security laws and obtaining information through “leaks” within government agencies.
Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of The Associated Press, told "Face the Nation’s" Bob Schieffer that the Department of Justice had issued a secret subpoena for the phone toll records of 21 AP phone lines.
The Justice Department looked at two months of cell, home and office phone records concerning a “thwarted” al-Qaida plot to blow up an American commercial jet. The records were taken without notice or opportunity to seek judicial review, Pruitt said.
He told Schieffer that the move has already had a chilling effect on the wire service's ability to gather news. He called it a violation of First Amendment rights.
The second concerns more specific allegations that Fox News’ chief Washington reporter, James Rosen, obtained classified information about a possible nuclear bomb test in North Korea in 2009.
The goverment has charged former State Department employee Stephen Jin-Woo Kim with leaking the documents under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Rosen had his email searched and phone records subpoenaed in the course of the investigation. The Justice Department labeled Rosen a "co-conspirator" to obtain the search warrants.
Kim’s trial will begin in 2014; that itself may be a possible violation of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the accused to "enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial” by the Justice Department.
Michael Clemente, Fox News executive vice president for news, called it "downright chilling."
He added that, "We will unequivocally defend his right to operate as a member of what up until now has always been a free press." (It must be noted that this was originally reported by Fox, carried by the AP and reported in all other outlets.)
These two cases pose more questions than answers concerning freedom of the press, the protection of confidential sources and possible leakage of classified information.
Last week, President Barack Obama asked his administration to review guidelines in response to the mounting controversy over these incidents. Did the Department of Justice transgress its authority? Were the “secrets” so potentially damaging that they would harm the nation?
Where are the lines to be drawn between national security and press freedom? Can the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 legitimately authorize secret press investigations and subpoenas?
These are questions for our courts, the third independent and, theoretically, politically neutral branch of government.
Will Fox or the AP take these matters that far? I certainly hope so, if for no other reason than to draw the lines so we can say with authority where justice prevails and the Department of Justice screwed up. Or not.
David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.