from the quick-on-the-draw dept
During the campaign and after his win, President Elect Donald Trump has been remarkably consistent on his calls for curtailing the rights afforded to the American people and our news organizations by the First Amendment. Between threatening lawsuits over campaign ads, suggesting that political protests ought to be stopped, and mocking free speech in more general terms, the soon-to-be President has positioned himself to be a challenger to long-held freedoms for which very real blood has been shed to protect.
But it seems the President Elect is not content to wait to enter office to try to begin this erosion of the First Amendment. Amidst a week of turmoil over the publication of comments about the classified briefing he, amongst others, received detailing intelligence findings about Russian involvement in the previous election cycle, Donald Trump has called upon Congress to investigate how this information was leaked to NBC News.
“I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it,” he tweeted. "Before I, or anyone, saw the classified and/or highly confidential hacking intelligence report, it was leaked out to @NBCNews. So serious!" he added on Sunday.
We should note first the dissonance in Trump's stance and the Inception-esque nature of NBC's reporting. Essentially, NBC was reporting on a leak of a classified briefing that accused Russia of actively hacking, and then leaking, internal DNC communications. It's a leak about intelligence of a leak, in other words. And the DNC leaks were prominent talking points by Trump during the campaign, at times being read verbatim by the candidate at rallies, while at other times he simply read to the crowd news reports of the leaks. Those leaks were kosher, it seems, yet the NBC reports deserve Congressional investigation.
Perhaps more importantly, the prospect of Congress hauling journalists before the government to answer questions about their sources for the leaks takes the country back to a time prior to the precedent of not doing this.
Congressional committees, including the House and Senate intelligence committees, do technically have the authority to investigate the leak and subpoena NBC News reporters. But they are not likely to do so, media attorney Mark Zaid told POLITICO.
“I’d say there is little to no chance that Congress would get involved with any kind of classified media leak investigation,” he said. “Could they? Sure. Do they? No.”
In fact, the last time Congress did something like this was back in the 1970s, when a CBS reporter, Daniel Schorr, got his hands on a classified report from the House intelligence committee about illegal conduct perpetrated by the CIA. Schorr refused to name his source for the document in front of Congress, risking imprisonment, a punishment that was never actually levied. Given that the document Schorr used in his reporting, and subsequently shared with other news organizations, detailed only internal CIA practices and the government's assessments of them, returning to this kind of dangerous meddling by the government into news reporting over a document that deals with foreign spycraft would be strange indeed.
Strange, and dangerous, according to Joseph Califano, Jr., the man who represented Schorr during the ordeal.
Califano was dismayed after hearing about Trump’s tweet.
“That is a savage attack on the First Amendment,” he said. “We’ve been through this. Reporters have confidential sources. That’s become a hallowed part of the First Amendment and the ability of reporters to report. … These committees should not be getting into that.”
"If the government wants to find out who leaked and it’s somebody in the government, and if the intelligence community wants to find out who leaked, the Justice Department can go look at the CIA and look at all the national intelligence agencies," he said. "Not the reporter. That’s the wrong way to do it. That is really a serious erosion of a freedom that is essential."
But, as we've said, President Elect Trump has shown little regard for either the First Amendment or for the customs and norms of government action. Instead, he at times looks to wield government power as though it were his personal cudgel against his perceived political enemies. For anyone interested in a thriving and free America, whatever your political proclivities, whomever you may have voted for, the warning bells should be ringing loud and clear.