Skip to content

Clinton pardons convicted analyst who gave spy photos to media

Post categories

  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Jan 23, 2001    

Clinton pardons convicted analyst who gave spy photos to media

  • A Navy analyst receives a pardon after spending two years in prison after a magazine printed photos of a Soviet nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The first person convicted under espionage statutes for leaking information to the press received a presidential pardon more than 16 years after his arrest.

On his last morning in office, former President Bill Clinton pardoned Samuel Loring Morison, a former Navy intelligence analyst who was found guilty of providing a British magazine with three classified satellite photographs. Two months before the Jan. 20 pardon, Clinton vetoed a bill similar to the law that led to Morison’s conviction. A provision in the intelligence authorization bill would have permitted the government to pursue felony charges against leakers of classified government information, even if the information does not threaten national security.

An analyst for the Naval Intelligence Support Center and part-time employee of a British publication Jane’s Fighting Ships, Morison was arrested after a sister publication, Jane’s Defence Weekly, ran three photos of the first Soviet nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. In addition, Morison was charged with theft after investigators found classified documents in his apartment.

At the trial, the defense argued that Morison’s submission of the photos to the magazine did not constitute spying or sabotage since Morison did not supply the photos to a foreign government. However, the court noted that “the danger to the United States is just as great when this information is released to the press as when it is released to an agent of a foreign government.” Morison was convicted in federal district court in Baltimore in October 1985.

More than 30 publications, broadcasting companies and organizations, including the Reporters Committee, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in March 1987 supporting a reversal of the conviction. The brief noted that government leaks to the press are not only commonplace, but also vital to newsgathering efforts. The brief also argued that Morison’s conviction, given the vague, overbroad language of the Espionage Act, was unconstitutional in that it criminalized all government leaks to the press. The brief also noted that fear of legal action would essentially cut off the vital flow of information from the government to the public.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) upheld the district court judgment in 1988.

Morison, grandson of naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, served two years in prison.

ML


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page