- - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Readers and viewers don’t often confuse Fox News with the New York Times. Each offers a unique perspective on world events, and it’s a rare day when the conservative cable network joins the liberal broadsheet in a common perspective, but that’s what happened last week in Manhattan where President Obama was declared to be “the greatest enemy of press freedom.”

James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times, delivered that charge at the “Sources and Secrets” conference at the Times Center. He spoke from personal experience, having felt the sting of the administration’s use of the Espionage Act to compel reporters to betray their confidential sources. Mr. Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War,” used confidential sources at the CIA to tell how the agency botched efforts to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Spies and undercover men do not like it when their screw-ups become the stuff of common knowledge.

Mr. Obama has dispatched his team of lawyers to destroy the legal concept of a reporter’s privilege, all to identify and punish the insider who leaked the goods to Mr. Risen. The administration argues that Mr. Risen must betray his word and identify anyone who let the public know what their government is doing. Unless the Supreme Court takes up Mr. Risen’s appeal, he’ll have to talk or go to jail.

It’s not that the White House really wants Mr. Risen to serve time and to make sure he does, the mere threat is enough. Witch hunts to “find the leaks” are meant to deliver a chilling message throughout the bureaucracy: “Talk to a reporter, and we’ll unleash the prosecutors.” The chill is already spreading through the government.

“This is the worst time period in my career as a journalist for press freedom,” says Mr. Risen. “The Obama administration has doubled down on reductions in press freedom that began in the Bush administration, and they are engaged in the kind of aggressive anti-press activities that the Bush administration only contemplated and never pursued.”

The use of the Justice Department to prosecute reporters who delve into national security topics creates what Mr. Risen rightly describes as a “de facto Official Secrets Act,” referring to the British law that enables government officials to suppress publication of information from leaks. The Official Secrets Act was used in 1987 against Peter Wright, the former MI5 agent who wrote “Spycatcher,” a book detailing the agency’s real-life James Bond exploits in the 1960s. Chapters about assassinating foreign leaders, snooping on Prime Minister Harold Wilson and hunting for a high-level KGB mole embarrassed the government. The book was banned in England, and a gag order kept newspapers from reporting or reviewing it. The gag failed because the book was freely available in the United States and elsewhere, and copies naturally made their way to Britain.

Edward Snowden fled to Russia to expose the scandal of the National Security Agency and calls from prominent officials for him to be charged with treason, or worse, demonstrated that his fears were not exaggerated. When Vladimir Putin can claim, specious though the claim may be, to be a better friend of the press than the president of the United States, it’s a sad day.

The First Amendment prevents such abuses here (so far), but its protections will surely disappear if we, the people, allow freedom of speech and its identical twin, freedom of the press, to wither when a cornered bureaucrat waves the flag of “national security.”

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