Unlike many criminals leaving court after the jury's guilty verdict in a well-publicized case, Samuel Loring Morison had no statement for the media. The former naval intelligence analyst was convicted Oct. 17 in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore for espionage and theft. Morison, 41, and a resident of Crofton, Md., faces 40 years in prison if his appeal is lost.
The defendant was silent because he has yet to be sentenced. Judges, like everyone else, can take offense at what they think is mouthing off. Morison's muteness doesn't matter. The event of his prosecution, trial and conviction speaks with thundering loudness: Justice was not done.
Morison was prosecuted because he supplied three classified satellite photographs to a British magazine called Jane's Defence Weekly. The pictures, taken from a secret satellite photo system known as KH-11, were of a Soviet aircraft carrier under construction. They ran as part of an August 1984 cover story. The KH-11 system itself was already known to the Soviets.
Government duplicity, not a government employe's criminality, was on display. Morison was a leaker, one of thousands. He was not a spy or thief. If his conviction stands, the First Amendment will be gashed in a way the bloodletters of the Reagan administration have been seeking for five years.
Morison was convicted under a 1917 law that sought to protect the public from spies and other threats, genuine ones, to the national security. The law was not intended to leakproof the government. No law like that exists, because no administration could function under one. Nor could the press, which needs more information from the government than what the government, in its unmajestic self-interest, wants to disclose.
The Morison case is being called landmark. If so, the land has no footprints. The 1917 statute has never been used to prosecute anyone for disclosing information to the press, except in the Pentagon Papers case, in which the defendants won a dismissal because of government misconduct.
The typical espionage criminal is someone who, for whatever reason, is out to hurt his government and perhaps earn a large dollar from what he covertly passes on. It is known that Morison, the grandson of the naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, was pro-Navy and delighted to work for the Reagan administration and its goal of rearming America. He was not a sneak slipping coded high-secret documents to a KGB agent in a Berlin alley.
Morison, a Vietnam veteran and a 10-year employe of the Naval Intelligence Support Center in Suitland was a bureaucrat who openly served as the U.S. editor for Jane's Fighting Ships, another British publication. Getting pictures splashed on the cover of a well-read military magazine is not the definition of covert. If that kind of leaking is criminal conduct, then Washington, as Richard Nixon liked to say, truly is the crime capital of America.
Morison's laywers argued that his purpose in publicizing the construction of the Soviet's first nuclear aircraft carrier was in the tradition of routine leaking: He wanted to make a case in print, in this instance announce that the Evil Empire was getting still more evil with this latest advance. To Morison, and to large numbers of others who regularly leak classified information that helps the argument that America should spend more money on the military, that was patriotism. Maybe, maybe not. But only by the most twisted interpretation is it espionage. No new secrets were released, unless it can be imagined that Soviet spies are monitoring Jane's Defence Weekly for pictures of what's astir in Soviet shipyards.
The Justice Department is saying that this prosecution is not an attack on the press. No one should believe it. This is the administration that has been regularly trying to dam the free flow of information from the government to the public. It has attacked the Freedom of Information Act. Government censors are now empowered to review before publication the writings of federal employes and former employes. Angus Mackenzie, director of the Freedom of Information Project for the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, writes in the current Guild Reporter that in 1983 "Pentagon censors reviewed 10,088 books and articles before publication, up dramatically from 6,457 in 1982 and 2,784 in 1981."
The Morison case shows the rawness of this intimidation. A federal classifier decides a harmless picture of a Soviet ship is relevant to national security, and the teeth of espionage clamp the neck of a luckless bureaucrat. The media receiving information like this now risks being part of the crime ring. Crime reporters will have a new beat: the journalist at the next desk opening mail from a bureaucrat.