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James Comey Says Real Journalists Check With The Government Before Publication

from the by-all-means,-let's-allow-the-DOJ-to-decide-who's-a-real-journalist dept

In his testimony yesterday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey became the latest government official to speak out against Wikileaks. In doing so — even though he very carefully worded his answers to Sen. Ben Sasse’s softballs — Comey also made a very dangerous insinuation about what separates “real” journalists from Wikileaks.

From the transcript published at the Washington Post:

SASSE: [T]here is room for reasonable people to disagree about at what point an allegedly journalistic organization crosses a line to become some sort of a tool of foreign intelligence. There are Americans, well-meaning, thoughtful people who think that WikiLeaks might just be a journalistic outfit. Can you explain why that is not your view?

COMEY: Yes and again, I want to be careful that I don’t prejudice any future proceeding. It’s an important question, because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press, to get information about our work and — and publish it.

To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly. Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting. And simply becomes a conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the United States just to push out information to damage the United States. And I realize, reasonable people as you said, struggle to draw a line…

So, where does the journalistic publishing of leaked documents cross the line into “intelligence porn?” Comey says the difference between real journalists and Wikileaks is real journalists seek input from the government before publishing.

Comey: [T]here’s at least a portion and people can argue that maybe this conduct WikiLeaks has engaged in, in the past that’s closer to regular newsgathering. But in my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’s activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. And — and — and people sometimes get cynical about journalists.

American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or — or innocent civilians anywhere in the world. And then work with us to try and accomplish their important First Amendment goals while safeguarding those interests. This activity I’m talking about, WikiLeaks, involves no such considerations whatsoever. It’s what I said to intelligence porn, just push it out in order to damage.

The First Amendment contains no such requirement to run leaked documents past the government first. This can be an ethical decision on the part of the publisher, but the notion that the First Amendment only covers publishing after government input has been sought is a dangerous one. This assertion by Comey also just isn’t true. As Trevor Timm pointed out on Twitter, Wikileaks has attempted to contact the US government in the past before publication, but has been ignored.

Furthermore, Comey and Sasse both claim Wikileaks’ publications have caused some sort of damage to government employees. They offered unproven assertions it has endangered lives, even though the evidence shows the worst the US government (and its employees) suffered is some embarrassment.

The only mitigating factor was Comey’s assertion that the DOJ isn’t interested in using espionage laws to prosecute journalists for publishing leaked documents. As he correctly points out, the culpability lies with the person leaking the documents, not the journalists publishing them. Of course, this statement isn’t being made in a vacuum. It’s being made in the current political climate where the president has expressed an interest in reducing free speech protections. The DOJ itself appears to be working towards prosecuting Julian Assange for publishing leaked documents. All that can really be gathered from Comey’s assertions is that the DOJ may not prosecute journalists who run everything past the government before publication.

This delineation between “legitimate” journalism and “intelligence porn” is disturbing. It suggests the government still wants to have the final say on who is or isn’t a journalist and punish accordingly. If this had been the attitude since the beginning of this nation, it’s doubtful we’d have as many protections as we enjoy today. Rob Graham of Errata Security sums up Comey’s statements in a single, unforgettable sentence:

If this were 1776, Comey would of course be going after Thomas Paine, for publishing “revolution porn”, and not being a real journalist.

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Comments on “James Comey Says Real Journalists Check With The Government Before Publication”

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36 Comments
Robin Liberty (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:I mean, you aren't going to make America great again by pandering to little people like journalists.

And what is YOUR point? This is not a matter of “pandering” to journalists. This is a matter free speech. There is no law or need to run anything by the government before publishing..

“the notion that the First Amendment only covers publishing after government input has been sought is a dangerous one.”
“This delineation between “legitimate” journalism and “intelligence porn” is disturbing. It suggests the government still wants to have the final say on who is or isn’t a journalist and punish accordingly.”

We need less government control…NOT more.

David says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:I mean, you aren't going to make America great again by pandering to little people like journalists.

That it’s absurd to contrast the U.S. with “oppressive regimes” concerning things like personal liberty, privacy, and freedom of the press.

The government does not consider itself bound to the Bill of Rights because it has been operating since WWII almost without interruption under some purported war or national emergency rule (most of which not meeting the standards spelled out in the Constitution) and has invented hosts of exceptions (not meeting the standards spelled out in the Constitution) labelled “qualified immunity”, “executive privilege” and other.

Nixon got sacked for his “might makes right” attitude, but since then everything considered unacceptable by the populace and Congress in those times has become standard fare by now. Nixon’s plumbers engaged in a minuscule fraction of activities that are performed these days by the NSA and other agencies under presidential supervision (which is already a bad idea when the president has a clue what he is doing, and it’s hard to believe that this holds true for all presidents that were put at the head of the country with such powers in place).

So no: contrasting the U.S. with “oppressive regimes” with a dim record of civil and constitutional rights is missing the point. The question is rather where it ranks among them. And that’s in flux.

Anonymous Coward says:

They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or — or innocent civilians anywhere in the world. And then work with us to try and accomplish their important First Amendment goals while safeguarding those interests.

Because the government has proven itself trustworthy when deciding what the public should know?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If it had nothing to hide it’d have nothing to fear.”

I generally hate that philosophy, as it’s usually used to try and deflect from horrific abuses of power on the pretence that the only people who could possibly object are those guilty of some major transgression.

However, here it does have some value. The reason the leaks were so damaging is because the issues they revealed were so severe. If the government weren’t vastly overstepping its bounds, leaks would have caused any damage.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Keep it up, Comey, and someone will leak and publish “intelligence porn” just to show you what it is.

_”Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest”_

The interests of the massive majority here, citizens of the country, outweigh your parochial interests, and your interest to hide things which are highly questionable, and frequently entirely illegal.

_”…just to push out information to damage the United States.”_

I think you mean, damage by exposure the highly questionable programs and methods you use to damage the core values of this nation, for little to no positive effect in your purported purposes.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Saving time

This assertion by Comey also just isn’t true. As Trevor Timm pointed out on Twitter, Wikileaks has attempted to contact the US government in the past before publication, but has been ignored.

If Wikileaks has attempted to contact the government before previous releases and was brushed aside, or given insane responses, like, say, a demand that wikileaks return the documents, the government doesn’t get to act shocked if wikileaks decides to skip the wasted step and go straight to publication.

Why waste time attempting to start a conversation that’s either dead silence from the other side or ludicrous demands that you have no intention of accepting?

David says:

Re: Saving time

If Wikileaks has attempted to contact the government before previous releases and was brushed aside, or given insane responses, like, say, a demand that wikileaks return the documents, the government doesn’t get to act shocked

Says who? James Comey is the poster child of the NSA officials for being shocked, shocked to hear that illegal surveillance has been going on while stuffing his pockets with transcripts.

The shocked act is their crowd pleaser and they have performed it numerous times to great effect before Congress itself.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Blackmail?

Unless he resigns or makes a huge mistake somewhere and is removed for dereliction, FBI directors are appointed to a 10-year term (this can be extended by Congress if they choose to do so). This is to prevent any director from becoming as powerful as Hoover and to protect the director from being changed every time a new President is elected.

Median Wilfred says:

Ken Dilanian does

See: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-tribune-dilanian-20140904-story.html

and: https://theintercept.com/2014/09/04/former-l-times-reporter-cleared-stories-cia-publication/

Dilanian is still employed, by NBC it looks like, after a stint at Associated Press.

Maybe Comey is thinking of Dilanian. If you read a story by Dilanian, you should think of Dilanian double-checking with the CIA about the appropriateness of that story.

Yes, this pisses me off.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Let's see if I got this right:

Intelligence Porn is pooping (raw) data out to the public and letting the people individually decide what conclusions to draw.

legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies is selectively releasing data so that it implies an intended conclusion. Data with spin. Telling the public what to think.

Propaganda.

Is that it?

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