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From the Fall 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4. 1917: The Espionage Act is introduced…

From the Fall 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

1917: The Espionage Act is introduced into Congress two days after the United States ends diplomatic relations with Germany. Congress approves the act but defeats a censorship provision that would have allowed the president at his discretion to punish publications he felt violated the act. Among the 2,000 people charged with espionage during World War I were journalists involved in a German-language newspaper, a socialist newspaper and a left-wing literary journal. 

1942: Chicago Tribune war correspondent Stanley Johnston, on board a U.S. transport ship, learns of dispatches about a Japanese fleet near Midway Island, which the U.S. Navy understood because it had cracked the Japanese code. After the battle, the Tribune published Johnston’s story, “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea,” which makes clear that the Navy had broken the code. An incensed President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a prosecutor to impanel a grand jury to consider charges against Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, but the jury refuses to indict. Skeptics consider the publicized inquiry a way to punish McCormick for criticism of the Roosevelt administration.

1950: The Internal Security Act, which includes revisions to the Espionage Act, is signed into law. Congress also approves a related espionage law that forbids the publications of “communications intelligence” information, a provision prompted by leaks such as the one to the Tribune during World War II.

1971: The U.S. Supreme Court rules against a prior restraint against The New York Times and The Washington Post in the Pentagon Papers case, but three of the justices who ruled against the prior restraint state that their decision doesn’t preclude the government from charging the papers with espionage. Combined with the three dissenting justices who upheld a prior restraint against the papers, legal experts say this leaves open the possibility of such a prosecution of the media.

1988: A federal appeals court upholds the espionage conviction of Samuel Morison, a part-time government employee and contributor to a British publication. Morison was charged with stealing satellite photos of a Soviet ship off a colleague’s desk in a secure area and selling them to a magazine, Jane’s Defence Weekly. Media groups file friend-of-the-court briefs on Morison’s behalf but later say his case is distinguished from mainstream reporters’ regular work because Morison is a government employee who signed a nondisclosure agreement and because he took an active role in taking the photos, as opposed to passively receiving information.

2002: Studying the need for a law that would criminalize the leak of classified information, Attorney General John Ashcroft reports that “current statutes provide a legal basis to prosecute those who engage in unauthorized disclosures, if they can be identified.” Ashcroft says “vigorous enforcement” of those laws not new legislation is the best way to combat leaks. The White House agreed to the study after Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) reintroduced legislation that Congress passed but President Clinton vetoed in 2000. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.) introduces the bill again in August 2005.