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Opinion Why Peter King’s comments on Greenwald threaten the republic

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) made waves yesterday on a Fox News interview in which he called for “legal action” to be taken against Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. The congressman’s comments were delivered in his usual stentorian style, with absolute certainty and conviction, even though they appear to lack any factual basis.

Abridging the whole situation, however, involves something of a brain-twister, but we’ll give it a try anyhow: Legal action should be taken against Greenwald, says King, not only because of the NSA intelligence leaks that he has already published but also because of information he has threatened to publish — specifically the names of CIA agents. Even though he hasn’t threatened to publish any such thing.

Here’s how King articulated the matter to Fox News host Megyn Kelly:

Not only did he disclose this information, he has said that he has the names of CIA agents and assets around the world, and they’re threatening to disclose that. The last time that was done in this country, you saw a CIA station chief murdered in Greece. No right is absolute. And even the press has certain restrictions. I think it should be very targeted, very selective and certainly a very rare exception. But in this case, when you have someone who has disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then to me, yes, there has to be — legal action should be taken against him. This is a very unusual case with life-and-death implications for Americans.

That stuff about the CIA — not true, wrote Greenwald on Twitter:

Later in the interview, Kelly got to the grain of the matter, asking King whether he was urging action against Greenwald for what he has published thus far — or based on the prospect that he might publish something in the future. King’s response:

I would say it certainly should be considered. The reason I say that is, it’s putting American lives at risk. This is clearly done, I believe, to hurt Americans. To allow this to go on … to me is going to have grave consequences for the United States. But I’m tying the two together — that, to me, shows his motivation.

Kelly kept pushing: Where’s the proof of Greenwald’s “harm-America” agenda? King: “The very fact that he says — to me what shows his intent, is when he was saying he threatened to release the names of CIA agents. There’s no way that helps the United States. And that, to me, shows his motivation.”

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Tracking how King may have reached the notion that Greenwald had threatened to publish the names of CIA agents requires a casual familiarity with the Edward Snowden affair.

Indeed: Greenwald has said that there will be more “significant revelations that have not yet been heard over the next several weeks and months.” Had Greenwald ever said anything about outing CIA agents, such an utterance would have hijacked the entire international news media, distracting from the privacy and government accountability issues that he has long championed.

Indeed: Snowden, the famous source for Greenwald’s scoops, has said that he had access to “undercover assets all over the world,” a contention that has drawn some skepticism.

Perhaps King is eliding those two facts in concluding that Greenwald is hell-bent on publishing the names of CIA agents. Who knows. An inquiry to King’s office seeking the source of his Greenwald allegation has turned up nothing so far.

Wherever he’s fetching his information, King’s comments reflect one of three disturbing possibilities:

1) He knows something about Greenwald that none of us does;

2) He’s spouting off to a large Fox News audience on topics with which he has little familiarity;

3) He’s willfully misquoting and misconstruing the many public comments made by both Greenwald and Snowden on this case.

A possible source document for King’s allegation is the interview that Greenwald conducted with Snowden from a Hong Kong hotel room. In one of his remarks, Snowden talks about how much information he had at his fingertips:

I had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all over the world. The locations of every station, we have what their missions are and so forth.”

Taken in isolation, that’s frightening stuff. Taken in full context, it’s anything but:

Greenwald: “If your motive had been to harm the United States and help its enemies or if your motive had been personal material gain were there things you could have done with these documents to advance those goals that you didn’t end up doing?”
Snowden: “Oh absolutely. Anyone in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could suck out secrets, pass them on the open market to Russia; they always have an open door as we do. I had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all over the world. The locations of every station, we have what their missions are and so forth.”
“If I had just wanted to harm the U.S.? You could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. But that’s not my intention. I think for anyone making that argument they need to think, if they were in my position and you live a privileged life, you’re living in Hawaii, in paradise, and making a ton of money, ‘What would it take you to leave everything behind?'”

In other words, Snowden boasted of his access to intelligence information — and not everyone believes him on this point — in a context of restraint. There’s more on this front: Snowden has made it clear that he wouldn’t indiscriminately leak records in large batches. From a Post story by Greg Miller:

Snowden has praised [Bradley] Manning but also sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor. In particular, Snowden has indicated that he sought to be more responsible, withholding records he had that might put U.S. intelligence operatives in jeopardy, unlike Manning, who is accused of turning over thousands of pages, some of which contained the names of informants.

Peter King would make a poor journalist. May he never, ever complain about being quoted out of context.

His words yesterday don’t speak to his acumen as a public servant, either. As argued previously in this space, the recent explosion of leak news has highlighted the centrality of governmental self-restraint in preserving freedoms. Laws and guidelines can do only so much:

• In the leak investigation involving the Associated Press, the Justice Department could have decided to apprise the wire service of its plans to seize records for 20 phone lines. It chose not to, and used a loophole in federal regulations to help itself to the data.

• In the leak investigation involving Fox News, the Justice Department could have chosen not to cite “probable cause” that Fox News reporter James Rosen was a co-conspirator in a violation of the Espionage Act. It proceeded with the co-conspirator label, however, in an expedient quest to obtain Rosen’s personal e-mails.

• In last week’s leak news, the NSA is collecting the phone records of millions upon millions of Verizon customers, according to a secret court order obtained by the Guardian. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner reacted to that news by calling the phone-records collection an “abuse” of the law. “[B]ased on the scope of the released order, both the administration and the FISA court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended.”

Amid patent examples of government overreach, King is cheerleading for more overreach.