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Column: What was journalist James Rosen thinking?

By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - Just open your Twitter feed and listen to the Washington press corps howl about the Obama administration's latest intrusion into their business.

From the mainstream we hear the grousing of Washington Post National Political Editor Steven Ginsberg, Washington reporter John Solomon and the Associated Press's Matt Apuzzo. From the partisan corners come the protests of the Daily Caller's Tucker Carlson, the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and the chronically underemployed Keith Olbermann.

All deplore, in vociferous terms, the excesses of a Department of Justice leak investigation that has criminalized the reporting of Fox News Channel's James Rosen.

While I join this chorus of rage, I also wonder how much of Rosen's trouble is of his own making. Did Rosen get caught and get his source in trouble because he practiced poor journalistic tradecraft?

First, the background: According to Monday's Washington Post, Rosen became part of a federal leaks probe because secrets appeared in his reporting on North Korea. Ordinarily, the Department of Justice limits itself when investigations bump up against the press, but in this case the feds pushed hard, obtaining a search warrant to seize Rosen's private emails, asserting that he was a possible "aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator" in the alleged leak. That is, they posited that Rosen might be a lawbreaker for requesting classified information from his source.

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.

Next, Rosen's email communications also appear to have compromised his alleged source. According to the Post, one email exchange between Rosen and Kim "seems to describe a secret system for passing along information," including code names.

Wrote Rosen: "One asterisk means to contact them, or that previously suggested plans for communication are to proceed as agreed; two asterisks means the opposite." Rosen also wrote to Kim requesting "breaking news ahead of my competitors," "what intelligence is picking up" and "some internal State Department analyses."

None of these entreaties are in themselves damning, but a smart reporter seeking secret information might want to afford a source more protective cover than stating his requests in a form that is as insecure and eternal as email.

Other ways Rosen compromised Kim: Phone records establish at least 36 calls between Kim's desk phone and Rosen's various phone lines. And according to computer logs, two of those calls coincided with Kim opening a classified report on his computer.

Didn't these guys watch "The Wire" on television? Don't they know about burn phones? Kim didn't help himself much, either, printing out and leaving next to his computer a copy of Rosen's article.

Last, the nature of Rosen's report was almost guaranteed to attract attention from the intelligence establishment. The story described the CIA's findings, "through sources inside North Korea," of that country's plans should an upcoming U.N. Security Council resolution pass.

Although Rosen's story asserts that it is "withholding some details about the sources and methods … to avoid compromising sensitive overseas operations," the basic detail that the CIA has "sources inside North Korea" privy to its future plans is very compromising stuff all by itself. As Rosen continues, "U.S. spymasters regard as one of the world's most difficult to penetrate."

Once the North Koreans read the story, they must have asked if the source of the intel was human or if their communications had been breached. In any event, you can assume that the North Koreans commenced a leak probe that made the U.S. investigation look like the prosecution of a parking ticket.

I have a hard time understanding what purpose Rosen's scoop served. He appears to have uncovered no wrongdoing by the CIA in North Korea and no dramatic or scandalous change of U.S. policy that's being concealed from the U.S. public. Boiled to its essence, the story says the U.S. has penetrated North Korean leadership. It's a story, all right, but I can't imagine any U.S. news outlet running it without more cause, and I'll bet that Fox News would take it back today if it could. I doubt that Rosen has committed any crimes against the state, but offenses against common journalistic sense? I'm not so sure.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics. Don't send email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com, as I assume the feds will read it. If you follow my Twitter feed, please practice sound tradecraft and subscribe with an alias. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.)

(Jack Shafer)

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