The Justice Department in Washington (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
The Justice Department in Washington (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

Bill O’Reilly last night brought on a pair of guests to discuss, among other things, whether the Justice Department’s journalist-snooping activities have any merit. The consensus? No.

This week’s big story on the leak front concerns Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose personal Gmail account was the subject of a search warrant related to his reporting on the State Department and national security. With the aid of anonymous sourcing, Rosen penned a 2009 story revealing that North Korea would respond to a U.N. Security Council resolution by conducting a nuclear test. More than a year later, State Department security adviser Stephen Kim — Rosen’s alleged source — was charged with disclosing national defense information.

Here’s what O’Reilly said about the story’s merit as the centerpiece of a federal investigation:

[W]ith the Rosen thing, this is just a stupid story about North Korea reacting to a U.N. threat of boycott. This has nothing to do with any agent in the field. That’s why this is so egregious. The Rosen thing is ridiculous.

One of O’Reilly’s guests, Kirsten Powers, also dismissed the fundamentals of the federal case against the Associated Press. Attorney General Eric Holder last week said that the story at the root of the May 7, 2012, AP story about an al-Qaeda bomb plot stemmed from a “very serious leak.” Powers was having none of that story: “Holder made this argument about the AP. Why they went after the AP was because there was this grave security risk, right?… It turns out completely bogus. Not even remotely true. That is not what happened. That the AP actually was just going to break the story a day earlier than the administration wanted to break the story,” said Powers.

Backstory: The AP held off on publishing its story after the administration expressed concerns about compromising national security. Once those concerns were “allayed,” the AP fielded requests to hold off a bit more, so that the White House could make an announcement right after the wire service hit “publish.” The AP declined to play along. Is Powers suggesting that this decision triggered the massive leak investigation?

If so, there’s plenty of stuff out there to dispute such a contention. In an extensive breakdown of why the leak “infuriated” the Obama administration, Jack Shafer of Reuters uses published accounts to show that U.S. intelligence had managed to secure the cooperation of a key double agent in the Arabian Peninsula, and the leak threatened this pivotal asset. Shafer:

Likewise, the next time the CIA or foreign intelligence agency tries to recruit a double agent, the candidate will judge his handlers wretched secret keepers, regard the assignment a death mission and seek employment elsewhere.

Last, the leaks of information — including those from the lips of Brennan, Clarke and King — signal to potential allies that America can’t be trusted with secrets. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” as Obama put it today in a news conference.

A trio of former Justice Department officials wrote a recent New York Times op-ed citing this imperative behind the investigation:

The United States and its allies were trying to locate a master bomb builder affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that was extremely difficult to penetrate. After considerable effort and danger, an agent was inserted inside the group. Although that agent succeeded in foiling one serious bombing plot against the United States, he was rendered ineffective once his existence was disclosed.

The leak of such sensitive source information not only denies us an invaluable insight into our adversaries’ plans and operations. It is also devastating to our overall ability to thwart terrorist threats, because it discourages our allies from working and sharing intelligence with us and deters would-be sources from providing intelligence about our adversaries.

So that’s the case for the leak investigation, and it hinges not at all on whether the AP played ball with the White House announcement schedule. A separate story by Reuters explains that the investigation preceded all the wrangling about roll-outs:

A law enforcement official said on Wednesday that because officials were so concerned and shocked by the leak, they opened an investigation into how the AP found out about the spy operation even before the news agency ran its initial story. The AP had contacted the government and asked for comment several days before the story was published.

The larger point here is that you can deplore the Justice Department’s sweeping phone-records subpoena and its failure to notify the AP of its snooping while conceding at the same time that the department may have a quite valid investigative job at hand. It did, after all, conduct 550 interviews on the leak, suggesting that it’s more than a trivial matter.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.