from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2013, Issue No. 49
May 22, 2013

Secrecy News Blog:


When the Central Intelligence Agency prepared its famous 1973 compilation of dubious and illegal Agency activities known as the "Family Jewels," it included several instances in which reporters were tracked or monitored in order to identify their sources. While these activities were technically "approved" by senior Agency officials, they also "conflict[ed] with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947," presumably since they exceeded CIA's charter and jurisdiction.

But now, in the wake of recent developments involving seizure of Associated Press telephone records and the identification of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a purported co-conspirator in a leak of classified information, such once disreputable tracking of journalists threatens to become the new normal.

"At the direction of the DCI, a surveillance was conducted of Michael Getler of the Washington Post during the periods 6-9 October, 27 October-10 December 1971 and on 3 January 1972," the Family Jewels document stated. "In addition to physical surveillance, an observation post was maintained in the Statler Hilton Hotel where observation could be maintained of the building housing his office. The surveillance was designed to determine Getler's sources of classified information of interest to the Agency which had appeared in a number of his columns."

Likewise, "At the direction of the DCI, surveillance was conducted of Jack Anderson and at various times his 'leg men,' Brit Hume, Leslie Whitten, and Joseph Spear, from 15 February to 12 April 1972. In addition to the physical surveillance, an observation post was maintained in the Statler Hilton Hotel directly opposite Anderson's office. The purpose of this surveillance was to attempt to determine Anderson's sources for highly classified Agency information appearing in his syndicated columns." ("Surveillance of Journalists: A Look Back," Secrecy News, September 19, 2012).

Those were seemingly rare and isolated incidents. Although "DOJ and the FBI receive numerous media leak referrals each year, the FBI opens only a limited number of investigations based on these referrals," the FBI told Congress in 2010. That is due in part to the fact that the FBI avoided investigations of news media organizations.

"We have interpreted DOJ's formal policy on obtaining information from members of the news media, codified at 28 C.F.R. §50.10, as requiring that such leak investigations focus on potential leakers rather than reporters," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "While this policy appropriately balances the importance of First Amendment freedoms with the strong national security interest in keeping classified information from disclosure, it necessarily limits the prosecutor's access to the reporter who received the sensitive information. In the rare case in which DOJ issues a subpoena to a reporter for information about the source of a leak, the information is not necessarily produced." ("FBI Found 14 Intel Leak Suspects in Past 5 Years," Secrecy News, June 21, 2010).

But today, any news organization that successfully "solicits" disclosure of classified information evidently must consider the possibility that the records of its communications will be subject to government review, contemporaneously or even long after the fact. In the absence of congressional intervention to restore the former status quo, the mere prospect of such monitoring will induce a dramatic change in the landscape of national security reporting, and in the character of all contacts between government officials and members of the public.

One thin line that has not yet been crossed is the prosecution of journalists for violating the Espionage Act by reporting classified information.

A Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday suggested oddly that such a prosecution had already occurred: "We can recall only a single such prosecution of a journalist under the Espionage Act in 95 years," the Journal editors wrote ("A Journalist 'Co-Conspirator'," May 20). But this appears to be an error, and the editors did not identify the case they had in mind.

The nearest approach to the prosecution of a reporter or a news organization for violating the Espionage Act seems to have occurred during World War II when the Chicago Tribune published a story concerning Japanese war plans based on classified intelligence. In 1942, a grand jury was convened at the request of the U.S. Navy to weigh charges against the Tribune or its reporter, Stanley Johnston, but the grand jury was soon disbanded. No charges were brought, and no prosecution ensued. The episode was vividly recounted by Gabriel Schoenfeld in chapter 6 of his 2010 book Necessary Secrets. Mr. Schoenfeld indicated via email today that he was not aware of any actual prosecutions of journalists under the Espionage Act.

A timeline of leak investigations involving journalists from 2003 to the present was presented by Shane Harris of the Washingtonian's Dead Drop blog.

The possibility of indicting reporter Seymour Hersh in 1975 was raised by then-deputy White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, as described by PBS Frontline. It was not pursued.


William Z. Slany, the former Historian of the Department of State and a champion of efforts to declassify the secret history of U.S. foreign policy, passed away earlier this month.

Dr. Slany served in the State Department's Office of the Historian for 42 years, and was The Historian for the last 18 of those years, until his retirement from the Department in September 2000, according to a notice circulated by David H. Herschler, the Deputy Historian of the State Department.

In his capacity as Historian of the Department, Dr. Slany helped prepare 16 volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the official documentary record of U.S. foreign policy, and he oversaw the publication of 125 FRUS volumes. He led an interagency study to prepare a two volume account of "Nazi gold" and other stolen assets from World War II. He participated in the development and implementation of the 1991 statute that formally required the State Department to present a "thorough, accurate, and reliable" record of U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic history.

Though dignified and softspoken, Dr. Slany could be combative in defense of an open and honest historical record. And while it is unusual for a senior official of one agency to criticize the conduct of another agency publicly and on the record, he was willing to do so when he thought it was justified.

In 1999, for example, he berated the Central Intelligence Agency for making what he termed "unreasonable" excisions in its declassified records of Cold War covert actions.

"What has become apparent and obvious is the Agency's unwillingness to acknowledge amounts of money, liaison relationships, and relationships with organizations, information that any 'reasonable person' would believe should be declassified," Dr. Slany said, according to the minutes of a September 1999 meeting of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee. "The process has revealed the bare bones of CIA's intransigence," he said.

"Bill Slany was one of the good guys in the declassification/secrecy game," said Rutgers historian Warren Kimball, a former chair of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.

"He played a key role in the maneuvers that, in 1991, created the landmark legislation that forced open CIA, Energy Department (AEC) and other long-secret files so they could be declassified and published in the State Department series, Foreign Relations of the United States. His quiet, firm mantra was simple: in a democracy, the citizenry must have access, even if it came thirty years after the fact. The State Department he loved was not always as idealistic as he wished, but he never stopped pushing the institution, and the U.S. Government, toward openness," Prof. Kimball wrote via email.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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