The news media's ability to use leaks to keep the White House honest is threatened as never before by the unanticipated consequences of the investigation into the White House's own leaks of classified information to discredit a critic.
Some government officials are itching to exploit that investigation as a precedent for using the threat of long jail terms and massive fines to force reporters to finger their confidential sources. The precedent was set, ironically, by the special counsel investigating leaks by White House officials, including (we now know) Karl Rove and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby.
Few leakers and no reporters in American history have been prosecuted for disclosing classified information. But that may change.
Under the Justice Department's interpretation of a 1917 espionage law, both those who leak government secrets and those who publish them are felons. It may be no defense to argue that the leaks did little damage to national security, or that they exposed official misconduct or deception.
Subpoenas of journalists have not been so common in more than 30 years. Former Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin was sentenced to 12 years in prison last month for orally sharing classified information to help two then-staffers of a pro-Israel group lobby for a harder line on Iran. Those two men face trial in April for receiving classified information and sharing it with reporters and Israeli officials. They are the first private citizens ever prosecuted for such activities. Reporters could be next. Meanwhile, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said on February 17 that he may push for new legislation making it easier to prosecute leakers.
Unless wise heads in the Justice Department, the judiciary, Congress, and the media themselves steer a steady course through this gathering storm, the executive branch will acquire more power than ever to hide its actions from public and congressional scrutiny.