Complexity of Prosecuting Leakers Stirs Concern

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Some of the government's harshest critics want no one charged with providing unauthorized information in the Valerie Plame case. The reasoning: related charges may be appropriate, but prosecuting leakers for leaking would endanger freedom of information.


And as we've just heard, an announcement and document from the CIA leak investigation are coming later today. Oddly, some of the administration's staunchest critics have been hoping there will be no indictment in the case because of the potential impact on free speech. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.


The first law prosecutors are probably looking at is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. It was passed with the backing of George Bush Sr., a former CIA director who was furious at the outing of CIA agents by former agent Philip Agee in a magazine called Counter Spy. The law has been talked to death in recent months, but it has only been used once. Steven Aftergood with the Federation of American Scientists says the target was Sharon Scranage, convicted in 1985 of giving agents' names to her boyfriend, a Ghanaian intelligence officer.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Federation of American Scientists): She pled guilty and her case is the only one in which this statute was employed.

ABRAMSON: That law has a high standard. The defendant must know the agent is undercover and have reason to believe the disclosure would harm the US. Many have guessed that Karl Rove or Scooter Libby could more easily be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. That law has been frequently used against spies but Morton Halperin says only one person has been sent to jail under the law for leaking information to a journalist, Samuel Loring Morison.

Mr. MORTON HALPERIN (Open Society Institute): Morison was a government employee who gave a picture of a Soviet ship to one of the Jane's publications that publishes information about armed forces.

ABRAMSON: Halperin, now with the Open Society Institute, worked for many years for the American Civil Liberties Union, which defended Morison. They argued that the 1917 Espionage Act was directed at spies, not at journalists.

Mr. HALPERIN: The distinction is between giving it clandestinely to a foreign power for the purpose of causing harm to the United States as opposed to releasing it publicly for the purpose of influencing debate within the United States.

ABRAMSON: Morison was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to two years in prison. Many civil libertarians believed that case set a terrible precedent and persuaded President Clinton to pardon Morison on the last day of his presidency. Opposition to these laws by civil liberties groups has created an odd phenomenon. Persistent government critics are hoping that administration honchos will get off scot-free. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists says a conviction would stop leaks and disturb the status quo.

Mr. AFTERGOOD: And the status quo is that the government classifies what it deems necessary. The press works to uncover and to publish what it believes the public needs to know.

ABRAMSON: Aftergood is just as worried about recent indictments against Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former employees of a pro-Israel lobbying group charged with passing on classified information they allegedly received from a Pentagon employee. Aftergood and others say a conviction in that case would spell trouble for journalists, who do the same thing: try to uncover government secrets.

To former CIA employee Larry Johnson, however, this back-and-forth over freedom of the press ignores what really happened when Valerie Plame's name was printed in a newspaper column and her CIA cover was blown.

Mr. LARRY JOHNSON (Former CIA Employee): You do not out national security assets. You don't destroy national security resources.

ABRAMSON: Johnson worked on counterterrorism for the CIA and the State Department. He says that officials like Rove, Libby and others know full well how expensive it is to create a CIA agent's secret identity and how dangerous it is to expose that person.

Mr. JOHNSON: So these guys aren't novices. I mean, you know, these are not like new kids on the block who come from, you know, Waterloo, Iowa, and have never seen the CIA before. They've had intimate knowledge of this.

ABRAMSON: As we'll know later today, Libby or others could face other charges: perjury, for example. But if they are charged with unauthorized leaks, they'll have an unusual bunch of supporters cheering for them outside the courthouse.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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