One reliable bipartisan characteristic of U.S. leaders is an obsession with shaping the foreign policy narrative and concealing any information that contradicts their version of events. Indeed, many of them harbor the desire to prosecute anyone who leaks classified material that exposes blunders, lies or crimes. Two events in the past few weeks demonstrate that the desire to squash such disclosures is running at high tide: the attempt to extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges, and President Trump's angry outburst accusing the New York Times of "treason" for its story disclosing U.S. cyberattacks on Russia's power grid.
The Trump administration seems eager to go after troublesome journalists—a course that previous administrations generally have avoided since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case. The actual extent of that decision's protection typically has been overstated, however. The Court rejected the administration's bid for prior restraint—the use of censorship to bar publication–but did not explicitly address the question of whether authorities could prosecute journalists once a story using classified documents appeared. Individuals who leak items to the press remained as vulnerable as ever to prosecution for espionage, but members of the press have enjoyed de facto immunity. Officials seemed wary that post-publication attempts to prosecute press outlets might run afoul of the courts as well.