It was treason.
The conservative commentator Ann Coulter said The New York Times’ reporters had done something that “could have gotten them executed.” Bill Kristol, now known as a prominent anti–Donald Trump Republican, said the Justice Department “had an obligation to consider prosecution.” The radio host Rush Limbaugh declared, “I think 80 percent of their subscribers have to be jihadists. If you look at The New York Times and the kind of stories they’re leaking and running and the information they’re getting, it’s clear that they’re trying to help the terrorists. They’re trying to help the jihadists.”
In 2006, right-wing-media figures were apoplectic over the exposure by The New York Times of a surveillance program for tracking financial transactions without warrants or subpoenas, including those of American citizens. Like the reporting that exposed the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program, its network of secret torture chambers around the world, and its use of torture on terrorism suspects, it was another example of a news story that utilized leaks of classified information to inform the American public about what its government was doing in its name.
The Bush administration did not seek to prosecute the Times over its publication of that information, despite the fact that it had embarrassed the government and exposed things it had wanted to keep secret. But if the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is successfully convicted under the Espionage Act for publishing information leaked by the former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and if that conviction is upheld, then the Trump administration will have successfully laid the legal groundwork for prosecuting journalists. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that it was charging Assange with violations of the Espionage Act for, among other things, seeking to “encourage those with access to protected information, including classified information,” to offer it for “public disclosure.” There is no sense in which that action, if criminalized, does not also apply to media outlets such as The New York Times.