P.J. Crowley on the “Difference” Between WikiLeaks and the New York Times

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s amazing what not working for the government can do for one’s ability to tell the truth.  As readers likely know, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was forced to resign last month for the sin of accurately describing Bradley Manning’s abusive conditions of confinement as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”  (For his part, the ever-credulous Obama dismissed the abuse allegations on the ground that Manning’s abusers had assured him everything was fine.)  Crowley has not backed down from his claim; indeed, he has reaffirmed his position a number of times since his resignation.

Now Crowley has a new target: the administration’s desire to prosecute WikiLeaks for releasing the State Department cables.  From a new article by Justin Elliott in Salon (emphasis mine):

Since the WikiLeaks story has receded in the news, the tough talk from the administration has mostly faded. The status of any ongoing probe is unclear. But the looming question of how the Justice Department would distinguish what WikiLeaks did — publishing leaked documents — from what its media partners like the Guardian and the New York Times did remains unanswered.

The Espionage Act of 1917 makes it illegal to retain classified national defense information if the government asks for it back. But if that rarely used law applies to WikiLeaks, it would also apply to every big news organization that publishes national security reportage, according to legal experts.

Crowley, for his part, has by no means become a full-throated WikiLeaks supporter. Over the weekend, he tweeted: “The Manning prosecution, done right (his pre-trial treatment included), and improved data security are the proper responses to Wikileaks.”

I asked Crowley if that means he does not believe WikiLeaks itself should be prosecuted. He wrote in response:

“I do not see WikiLeaks as journalism. It is a source of information. That said, it is hard to distinguish what WikiLeaks did from what the New York Times did. That’s why the focus is rightly on Bradley Manning.”

I disagree with Crowley that WikiLeaks is not journalism.  (I don’t see how obtaining, editing, and releasing information relevant to the public interest doesn’t qualify.)  But, of course, Crowley is absolutely correct that there is no relevant legal difference between WikiLeaks and media outlets like the New York Times regarding the release of the cables.

If a former State Department spokesman gets it, why can’t everyone else?


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