Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.

Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.

What appears to have happened to Rosen is different from the AP case, in that unlike that fishing expedition that exposed more than 100 journalists to the revelation of their sources as well as invasions of their privacy, this investigation is limited to the Fox News reporter. The leak, which is supposed to have happened in 2009, concerned a report by Rosen that stated sources inside North Korea had informed the United States that Pyongyang would respond to United Nations sanctions with more nuclear tests.

But the notion that Rosen was an “abettor and/or co-conspirator” of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the alleged source of the leak, is an absurdity. The Post story said that according to the FBI, Rubin’s efforts to gain Kim’s confidence and to get him to give him information about the threat from North Korea “broke the law.” But the practices that the article described are not the product of a “covert” or “intelligence” operation. They are what journalists do every day in Washington and everywhere else as they seek to inform the public. There is no law against publishing classified information, so the government sought to use the Espionage Act to punish Rosen and his source. But treating journalists as spies renders the First Amendment protections of the press null and void. When the U.S. government behaves in this fashion it is saying in effect that there is no difference between the constitutional democracy led by Barack Obama and the authoritarian regime of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Say what you will about a dictator like Putin, but at least we are spared having his spokesman claim that he is a defender of a free and “unfettered” press while defending those who spy on reporters.

There is a legitimate public interest in keeping genuine classified information —as opposed to the mass of material that is merely labeled “classified”—secret. But what appears to be going on here is an administration campaign to both chill the press and to intimidate whistle-blowers and others inside the government. It also seems as if the administration is seeking to criminalize the normal give and take between journalists and officials that is the life’s blood of a free press.

But the problems don’t stop there. The targeting of a leading Fox News reporter as far back as 2009 at a time when, as Kirsten Powers notes today in the Daily Beast, the administration was doing its best to delegitimize the cable news channel makes one wonder if the Justice Department was taking its cue from its political masters when it sought to make an example of Rosen.

Another disturbing element of this topic is what appears to be the selective nature of the administration’s war on reporters.

Conservatives were angry last year when leaks about top-secret programs like the Stuxnet computer virus aimed at Iran’s nuclear program seemed to be part of an administration strategy to bolster the president’s reputation during an election year. The memory of the calls for investigations of those leaks now leads some of Obama’s defenders to decry what they see as hypocrisy on the right about their umbrage about the AP case. But the problem here is not the principle of leaking but whether the government is only prosecuting those leaks that did not suit the White House’s political interests.

Though the Justice Department has pursued more of these cases in the last four years than all of Obama’s predecessors combined, we have yet to learn of a leaker inside the White House doing the perp walk or one of the West Wing’s favorite outlets for such leaks being given the same treatment as the AP or Fox’s Rosen.

Once Kim has his day in court (which the Post says will be sometime in 2014), we’ll have a better idea of where the truth lies in this case, though the notion that Rosen’s reporting endangered national security strikes most observers, including liberal pundits who hate Fox, as lacking even a shred of credibility. But, as with the other leak investigations, the draconian efforts to make it harder for reporters to do their jobs seems to be part of a culture of intimidation that runs rampant in this administration. If President Obama really believes in protecting a free press he must act now to stop the Department of Justice from snooping on journalists in this manner. If not, he and his mouthpiece Jay Carney should stop pretending they have any respect for the Constitution. 

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