The Department of Justice has long avoided prosecuting “newsgathering and legitimate news reporting” as a criminal act, Comey said. Instead, the DOJ focuses on the leaker, not the outlet that publishes the information.
The comments might have been reassuring to the news media in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly leaving the door open to prosecuting journalists for publishing classified information ― or in other words, doing their jobs. But Comey drew a sharp distinction between what he considers “legitimate” news reporting and the activities of WikiLeaks, an organization that identifies itself as a publisher even if its methods differ from traditional news outlets.
“All of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press to get information about our work and publish it,” Comey said. “To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly.”
Comey said during the hearing that he believed “a huge portion of WikiLeaks’ activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America.”
American journalists “almost always call us before they publish classified information” to check if disclosures could put lives at risk, he said. WikiLeaks, in contrast, has “no such considerations whatsoever.”
It’s “intelligence porn,” Comey added. “Just push it out in order to damage.”
President Donald Trump expressed his “love” for WikiLeaks during his 2016 campaign as the organization published a steady stream of unflattering Democratic emails believed to have been obtained by Russian hackers. And yet Trump’s administration now appears to be targeting WikiLeaks.
Comey’s dismissal of WikiLeaks as an illegitimate outlet comes as the Justice Department is reportedly considering prosecuting the organization and its founder, Julian Assange, over 2010 disclosures of military and diplomatic documents and a recent release of CIA documents.
The Obama administration, which aggressively targeted leakers, prosecuted former Army Private Chelsea Manning for providing the 2010 documents to WikiLeaks, but decided against charging the organization, too. Doing so, the previous administration reasoned, could set a precedent for similarly prosecuting news outlets that publish classified information.
Though mainstream journalists may view their newsgathering methods as different from WikiLeaks, many acknowledge that charging a publisher of classified information ― even an unorthodox one ― could create a slippery slope that infringes on the media’s ability to hold government accountable.
On Wednesday, Arizona State journalism professor Dan Gillmor and Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm each expressed alarm over Comey’s suggestion that the government would decide if a publisher is “legitimate” or not.
During the hearing, Comey agreed with a recent intelligence assessment characterizing WikiLeaks as a “known outlet of foreign propaganda” and said he believed the organization’s work has endangered American lives.
When asked why Assange ― who is currently living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London ― hasn’t been charged with a crime, Comey said he didn’t want to comment so as not to “confirm whether there are charges pending.”
However, the FBI director made clear that “WikiLeaks is an important focus of our attention.”