Jack Shafer: ‘What Was James Rosen Thinking?’

Jack Shafer — former media critic at Slate, now at Reuters — writes that James Rosen’s reporting skills are what got him in trouble in the first place. An excerpt:

Rosen’s alleged source, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, was indicted in 2010 for disclosing national defense information. Although no charges have been filed against Rosen, journalists are logically demanding that the government explain how it can be a crime for a reporter to pursue government secrets when it is not (yet) a crime to publish them. If that’s the case, then hundreds, if not thousands, of current Washington reporters are criminals.

The search warrant — like the recently reported seizure of Associated Press telephone records by Department of Justice — indicates the federal government may be changing the rules on how it spars with reporters. If that’s the case, and I’m not sure it is, journalists should use whatever legal means at their disposal to resist.

But reporters should never depend on the law alone to protect them and their sources from exposure. By observing sound tradecraft in the reporting of such delicate stories, they can keep themselves and their sources from getting buried when digging for a story.

Rosen’s journalistic technique, if the Post story is accurate, leaves much to be desired. He would have been less conspicuous had he walked into the State Department wearing a sandwich board lettered with his intentions to obtain classified information and then blasted an air horn to further alert authorities to his business. For example, one data point investigators used to connect Rosen with his alleged source, Kim, was the visitor’s badge the reporter wore when calling on the State Department offices. According to security records, Rosen and his source left the building within one minute of each other and then returned only several minutes apart inside the half-hour. A few hours later that day (June 11, 2009), Rosen’s secret-busting story was published.

Even teenagers practice better tradecraft than this when deceiving parents.

I don’t agree at all. Technology today makes discovering who leaked what much easier than just a decade ago. The first Blackberry smartphone was released in 2003; the first iPhone in 2007. It not that Rosen’s techniques are shoddy, it’s that for the first time, the Department of Justice can easily track the the communications of government employees.

As for teenagers and their tradecraft, one of the counts against Kim is lying to the F.B.I. Shafer’s advice for journalists applies equally to those in the government who leak information: your parents always know when you’re lying, so, don’t.


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