James R. Clapper official portrait

DNI James R. Clapper

Last June, following the Snowden revelations, a storm of controversy erupted when David Gregory asked (then) Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald a provocative question on Meet the Press about his relationship to Snowden.

To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?

Greenwald pushed back hard.

I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in any way.

Gregory wasn’t the only one. Several other so-called “journalists” piled on. NBC’s Chuck Todd waded right in.

Glenn Greenwald, you know, how much was he involved in the plot? It’s one thing as a source, but what was his role–did he have a role beyond simply being a receiver of this information?

The Washington Post ran an article with a headline, “On NSA Disclosures, Has Glenn Greenwald Become Something Other Than a Reporter?” On CNN’s AC 360, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said that reporters should be prosecuted for publishing stories with leaked classified information.

Fast forward to the present. On Wednesday morning, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered his annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and stated that journalists are Snowden’s “accomplices.” (You may recall that Clapper outright lied to the Intelligence Committee last March about about NSA bulk collection activities. Some lawmakers are calling on Obama to fire him.)

In his prepared statement, Clapper made it very clear that he views the journalists who have copies of the documents as Edward Snowden’s “accomplices.” Remember, Edward Snowden is charged with violating the Espionage Act, and also that Snowden has repeatedly stated that he no longer has any documents.

From Clapper’s statement:

Snowden claims that he’s won and that his mission is accomplished. If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.

This is a prepared statement from James Clapper to a committee of Congress, and it surely was carefully reviewed; the word choices are deliberate and specific. The implication is crystal clear: the Obama administration now has officially stated that it views journalists reporting on Snowden documents as “accomplices” to the crime of espionage.

Asked for clarification about Clapper’s meaning when he referred to “accomplices,” Clapper’s spokesman Shawn Turner said in an email,

Director Clapper was referring to anyone who is assisting Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs.

Glenn Greenwald responded,

Turner may be reluctant to admit it, but that essentially dispels all doubt – if there was any – that Clapper was publicly accusing journalists who publish Snowden documents of being ‘accomplices’ in his ‘crimes.’ That a top-level Obama official is publicly accusing journalists of criminality for their journalism seems like fairly big (though unsurprising) news.

Even if the government doesn’t actually file charges against the journalists who have Snowden’s documents, Wednesday’s statement sent a clear and deliberately crafted message that the government can pursue journalists it regards as accomplices to (what it defines as) a crime. Last summer Attorney General Eric Holder, facing mounting criticism for tactics the Justice Department had been using to investigate national security leaks, vowed not to indict any journalists for their reporting.

The Department has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.

But now in an official statement, Clapper says journalists are “accomplices” and I am not aware of any statement of condemnation from the Attorney General. This is an unbelievably chilling message from a government official in a country that has in its constitution’s First Amendment a prohibition against infringing on the freedom of the press.

Public domain photo by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, via Wikimedia Commons