Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) is not exactly known for his moderation or his pragmatism on national-security issues. He once claimed that “80-85% of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists” who would threaten the country. Two years ago, he was still defending waterboarding and claiming (falsely) that it led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. He has even said that he was “offended” by President Obama’s “moralizing” over Guantanamo.
It should not be a surprise, then, that he wanted to designate WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization. Neither should it be a surprise that he has called Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked the recent PRISM and Verizon programs, “a traitor.” A lot of Congressional Republicans have done that. What makes Representative King unique is that he wants to criminally prosecute journalists who publish leaked documents.
Clearly, it is a terrible idea and one that the government would never actually implement. There is one annoying technical detail, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, in the way.
Plus, there is the fact that the government has never prosecuted a reporter for leaking classified information in its entire history. The Obama administration has conducted more leak investigations than any other administration in history and receives constantly alternating accusations of conducting a war on whistleblowers and a war on the press. Its decision to prosecute James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent, as criminally liable for soliciting classified information has drawn fierce criticisms from both ACLU lawyers and Fox News pundits for threatening press freedoms. Rep. King’s statements represent a serious escalation from that point. King would essentially prosecute national security journalists for doing their job, informing the public of relevant information not previously in the public domain.
But legal technicalities tend to detract from cheap political talking points. King’s remarks are not meant to contribute to the political debate, but to obfuscate it. In the same way that every Fox News anchor, except for the ones with those inconvenient law degrees, argued that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should not receive his constitutionally-mandated Miranda rights, King’s remarks essentially create an artificial crisis to inflate national security threats and serve political purposes while distracting from the legitimate issues at hand.
And as I have written previously, there are significant issues about the recent leaks that we need to discuss. The balance between national security and public disclosure is a significant element of these issues that news organizations consider very seriously. Edward Snowden may have broken his employment contract and the law. He may or may not have revealed classified information that threatened national security interests. But criminal liability does not rest with Glenn Greenwald for informing the American public on the actions of its government.
More than anything else, Representative King’s statements simply affirm the ideological deception and fearmongering obscurantism of the Republican House Caucus. It remains telling that he can appear on cable news and grossly misconstrue the issues while maintaining his comparative position as a Republican centrist.