Press Can Be Prosecuted for Having Secret Files, U.S. Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Bush administration said that journalists can be prosecuted under current espionage laws for receiving and publishing classified information but that such a step "would raise legitimate and serious issues and would not be undertaken lightly," according to a court filing made public this week.

"There plainly is no exemption in the statutes for the press, let alone lobbyists like the defendants," Justice Department lawyers wrote in response to a motion filed last month seeking to dismiss charges against Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Last August, the two men were accused of receiving classified information during conversations they had with government officials, one of whom warned Weissman that "the information he was about to receive was highly classified 'Agency stuff,' " according to the government's indictment. That official was Lawrence A. Franklin, who worked at the Pentagon. He recently pleaded guilty to violating the Espionage Act.

One argument made in the defendants' motion was that the two pro-Israeli lobbyists were doing what reporters, think-tank experts and members of congressional staffs "do perhaps hundreds of times every day" in receiving leaked classified information and passing it on to others.

In its Jan. 30 response unsealed this week, the government said Rosen and Weissman, as lobbyists, "have no First Amendment right to willfully disclose national defense information." The government went on to say: "Stating this, we recognize that a prosecution under the espionage laws of an actual member of the press for publishing classified information leaked to it by a government source, would raise legitimate and serious issues and would not be undertaken lightly, indeed, the fact that there has never been such a prosecution speaks for itself."

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who first disclosed the government filing on his Web site, , said yesterday, "The idea that the government can penalize the receipt of proscribed information, and not just its unauthorized disclosure, is one that characterizes authoritarian societies, not mature democracies."

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