President Obama told advisers this week that he is not interested in prosecuting reporters for soliciting information from government officials, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
“If you’re asking me whether the president believes that journalists should be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the answer is no,” Carney said in his daily briefing.
The news comes a day after Carney had refused to answer questions about a Justice Department leak investigation into the newsgathering activities of a Fox News reporter.
Carney told reporters Tuesday that he spoke to the president after that briefing about the controversy over the case involving the network’s chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen, and a former State Department arms expert, Stephen Kim.
“He cannot and I cannot comment on the specifics of any ongoing criminal matter,” Carney said, but “I can tell you that in our conversation yesterday, he reiterated just how important he believes it is that reporters, that all of you and your colleagues are able to do your jobs in a free and open way.”
The Obama administration has pursued more leak investigations under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined; the administration was criticized last week by the Associated Press for a sweeping search of the news agency’s phone records in one probe. Carney reiterated Tuesday that the president takes seriously leaks of classified information.
Kim, the former intelligence adviser, is fighting charges filed in D.C. federal court in 2010 that he disclosed national defense information.
No reporter, including Rosen, has ever been prosecuted for soliciting information. Government transparency advocates said the Justice Department went too far in a search warrant affidavit by characterizing Rosen’s day-to-day reporting techniques as possibly criminal.
The Justice Department emphasized Monday the distinction between the description of Rosen in court documents and the decision not to bring charges against him.
Kenneth L. Wainstein, former assistant attorney general for national security, said the Espionage Act criminalizes the willful disclosure of national defense information by any person and is not limited to leakers.
Wainstein said that just because investigators said there was evidence the reporter had violated the law doesn’t mean prosecutors had “any intention of going after” him.
But Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the distinction “does not erase the sworn statement the government made to a federal judicial officer in order to obtain a search warrant.”
Brown added: “If there was ever any doubt that a war on leaks could not be conducted without a war on the press and the public’s interest in the free flow of information, the government seems to have answered that question for us.”
Also Tuesday, the New Yorker reported that court documents in the Kim case suggest that the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia pulled subscriber information associated with more than 30 telephone numbers — including five associated with Fox News and two associated with the White House.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. declined to comment because the phone numbers are partially redacted under court order. A government official, who asked not to be named because of the ongoing case, said the Justice Department did not obtain detailed call records for any White House personnel.