Some US officials have suggested that it is against the law for a journalist to sell a story to a newspaper or website based on stolen classified material – a view that may have repercussions for the ongoing government-spying leaks made possible by Edward Snowden.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jnr floated the idea that journalists who sell or have sold reports about classified information were essentially “fencing stolen material” and should be prosecuted.
The so-called “stolen-goods theory” has questionable legal basis according to media law experts, the report said.
Several journalists – most notably former The Guardian reporter and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman, along with the South China Morning Post – have reported on documents personally handed over by Snowden, who is now under temporary asylum in Russia since visiting Hong Kong.
But in a meeting with FBI director James Comey, Rogers pressed him on the reporting’s legality, without specifically naming any journalists. “So if I’m a newspaper reporter for – fill in the blank – and I sell stolen material, is that legal because I’m a newspaper reporter?”
Comey, a former Justice Department official, cited the First Amendment as protecting reporters and publishers, but did not answer the question directly and said the Justice Department would be able to answer, the Washington Post said on Wednesday.
Both Rogers and Clapper have variably referred to reporters working with Snowden as “accomplices”.
However, Greenwald – who first published the Snowden documents and who had met face to face with the NSA whistle-blower – said he was “concerned” that a US official was “framing the issue this way”.
He added that it "leaves the suggestion that legitimate news reporting is tantamount to a criminal act. It’s not and shouldn’t be characterised that way”.
Greenwald said the discussion was a form of intimidation against the press, and vowed to continue being “super aggressive” with his reportage.
The report noted that the closest parallel to the “stolen-goods” issue was a spying scandal involving a former Defence Department worker who gave classified papers on US policy in Iran and Israel to two American Israel Public Affairs Committee employees.
The employees were indicted on charges of conspiracy to disclose classified data, but the case was eventually dismissed, the report said.