FIRST Principles Update for May 8, 2017

Wikileaks under renewed Justice Department scrutiny
In recent weeks, the government has turned up the public relations temperature against WikiLeaks. In late April, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department is seriously examining whether to prosecute WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. CIA Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a hostile non-state intelligence service. At the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is “stepping up” the justice Department’s work against leaks, Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports.

‘We are going to step up our efforts and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,’ the attorney general said. ‘This is a matter that has gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals who have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks. Some of them are quite serious. So, yes it is a priority.’

On Capitol Hill, FBI Director James Comey noted that longstanding FBI policy has been to recognize that newsgatherers who obtain and publish classified information are not subject to prosecution. The narrowness of his answer, however, raises questions about whether the Justice Department is debating a change to that view.

Margaret Sullivan, columnist for the Washington Post, recent wrote that prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing classified information would increase the odds that journalists would be prosecuted for doing their jobs.

Side note (positive for media freedom): Comey’s remarks came in answer to questions from Senator Ben Sasse (R-Ne.), a co-founder with Senator Jon Tester of the Senate Transparency Caucus.

News Media for Open Government has long urged that the government spend less effort trying to stop leaks and focus more on communicating the harm from specific reporting. See this commentary from us back in 2013 in The Hill.

A Last Word on Leaks (for now)
A reminder: Back in February Stephen Hess, the Brookings Institution scholar of the presidency, made the case in Politico why leaks are inevitable and included this Ronald Reagan nugget:
Ultimately, though, Trump will have to accept that he does not—and cannot have—total control and total allegiance. “How do you cope with leaks?” President Reagan was once asked. “I’ve been told you don’t,” he replied, having already learned a lesson that Trump will soon internalize. “Everybody who has been around here for a while tells me it is just the nature of the place.”

First Amendment Report Card
First Amendment experts gave a C+ grade on the current state of the First Amendment in the “Trump Era” in a report card coordinated by the Newseum Institute. Freedom of the press fared a little worse while assembly and petition fared a little better. In full disclosure, I had the pleasure of participating as one of 15 panelists giving grades. Look for the next report card half way through the year.

Making FOIA work like Amazon: Justice Department moves forward with FOIA portal
The 2016 FOIA Improvement Act requires the government to develop a system for the government to accept FOIA requests and track agency progress responding. The Justice Department is moving ahead with plans by gaining input on what a FOIA request portal should look like. We have our view of what we hope to see in any portal and why it should help requesters, including journalists, use FOIA.

Stories that explain journalism
We’re always looking for ways to explain the importance and impact of newsreporting, so we’re always looking for resources that explain why journalism tools (such as FOIA or anonymous sources) matter. Reuters’ new Backstory can help. If you know of other resources and explainers out there, let us know.