In order to keep tabs on Fox News correspondent James Rosen, the Obama Justice Department reportedly turned to the 1917 Espionage Act, declaring Rosen “an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator” to the leaking of classified materials. The details are outlined on the DOJ’s application for a search warrant, included in court documents obtained Monday by the Washington Post.

The Espionage Act was passed by Congress in 1917, about two months after America’s formal entry into World War I.  Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the law was used to criminally charge any person conveying information intended to interfere with the U.S. military’s war efforts and/or promoting the success of America’s enemies.  With the law in place, anyone found guilty of such acts was subject to a fine of $10,000 and 20 years in prison.

Obama DOJ relied on 1917 Espionage Act to target co conspirator Fox News

Blessed are the Peacemakers by George Bellows. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus with a halo in prison stripes alongside a list of his seditious crimes. First published in The Masses in 1917. (Image: Wikipedia)

Ben Wizner, director the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says that classifying a journalist as an un-indicted co-conspirator is “even a bigger deal” than the reported seizure of phone records from the Associated Press.

“A line has been crossed that has always been a very critical bulwark,” Wizner said. “That’s the line between government leakers and media publishers.”  According to MSNBC, no journalist has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a law that has has traditionally “only been used against those who gave or sold secrets to the enemy.”

“Gathering information from sources is a basic tenet of good reporting, and criminalizing or threatening to criminalize the news-gathering process is a direct assault on the First Amendment and press freedom,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Trevor Timm, who also heads the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “We’ve been saying for years that this type of ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’ theory is incredibly dangerous for reporters.” [...]

Such aggressive tactics may have a chilling effect that will make it more difficult to reporters to inform the public, critics warn. On Sunday, AP’s president and CEO said that sources had already become more reluctant to speak to his reporters since the news of the DOJ’s phone record surveillance broke.

“Our democracy relies on unauthorized as well as authorized communication between government and the press,” said Wizner. If reporters who print unauthorized leaks are going to be accused of espionage, “it doesn’t mean there won’t be conversations; it means only the official version will be transmitted.”