Whatever the unusual aspects of the case, the Obama administration's reported plan to indict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for conspiring with Army Pvt. Bradley Manning to obtain U.S. secrets strikes at the heart of investigative journalism on national security scandals.
That's because the process for reporters obtaining classified information about crimes of state most often involves a journalist persuading some government official to break the law either by turning over classified documents or at least by talking about the secret information. There is almost always some level of "conspiracy" between reporter and source.
Contrary to what some outsiders might believe, it's actually quite uncommon for sensitive material to simply arrive "over the transom" unsolicited. Indeed, during three decades of reporting on these kinds of stories, I can only recall a few secret documents arriving that way to me.
In most cases, I played some role - " either large or small - " in locating the classified information or convincing some government official to divulge some secrets. More often than not, I was the instigator of these "conspiracies."
My "co-conspirators" typically were well-meaning government officials who were aware of some wrongdoing committed under the cloak of national security, but they were never eager to put their careers at risk by talking about these offenses. I usually had to persuade them, whether by appealing to their consciences or by constructing some reasonable justification for them to help.
Other times, I was sneaky in liberating some newsworthy classified information from government control. Indeed, in 1995, Consortiumnews.com was started as a way to publish secret and top-secret information that I had discovered in the files of a closed congressional inquiry during the chaotic period between the Republicans winning the 1994 elections and their actual takeover of Congress in early 1995.
In December 1994, I asked for and was granted access to supposedly unclassified records left behind by a task force that had looked into allegations that Ronald Reagan's campaign had sabotaged President Jimmy Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran in 1980.
To my surprise, I discovered that the investigators, apparently in their haste to wrap up their work, had failed to purge the files of all classified material. So, while my "minder" wasn't paying attention to me, I ran some of the classified material through a copier and left with it in a folder. I later wrote articles about these documents and posted some on the Internet.
Such behavior " whether cajoling a nervous government official to expose a secret or exploiting some unauthorized access to classified material " is part of what an investigative journalist does in covering national security abuses. The traditional rule of thumb has been that it's the government's job to hide the secrets and a reporter's job to uncover them.
In the aftermath of significant leaks, the government often tries to convince news executives to spike or water down the stories "for the good of the country." But it is the news organization's ultimate decision whether to comply or to publish.
Historically, most of these leaks have caused the government some short-term embarrassment (although usually accompanied by exaggerated howls of protests). In the long run, however, the public has been served by knowing about some government abuse. Reforms often follow as they did during the Iran-Contra scandal that I was involved in exposing in the 1980s.
A Nixon Precedent
Yet, in the WikiLeaks case - " instead of simply complaining and moving on - " the Obama administration appears to be heading in a direction not seen since the Nixon administration sought to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971.
In doing so, the Obama administration, which came to power vowing a new era of openness, is contemplating a novel strategy for criminalizing traditional journalistic practices, while trying to assure major U.S. news outlets that they won't be swept up in the Assange-Manning dragnet.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors were reviewing the possibility of indicting Assange on conspiracy charges for allegedly encouraging or assisting Manning in extracting "classified military and State Department files from a government computer system."