Lapdogs, Watchdogs, and Scapegoats: The Press and National Security Information

74 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2007

See all articles by Mary-Rose Papandrea

Mary-Rose Papandrea

University of North Carolina School of Law


In the United States, the Executive branch possesses virtually unbridled classification authority to keep information from the public. Although the Freedom of Information Act and whistleblower protection laws serve as some check on the Executive's power over national security information, these tools remain largely ineffectual. Because the desire for tight information control competes with the demands of newsgathering, a "game of leaks" has developed among government officials and reporters in which the press alternatively serves as lapdogs, watchdogs, and scapegoats for the Executive branch.

This Article demonstrates that although leaks of classified information have been a quasi-official method by which the government communicates information to the public through the press ever since the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, legal developments in the current climate, including the on-going prosecution of two lobbyists for violations of the Espionage Act in the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee case, have the potential to establish precedents that could pose dire consequences for the press. This Article scrutinizes the constitutionality of prosecuting the press for the publication of classified information by examining the long and complicated history of the relationship between the press and the Executive branch and the role leaks play in the dissemination of classified information to the public today.

After examining the relationship between the press and the Executive branch as well as tracing the development of the reasoning behind the applicable First Amendment doctrine, this Article argues that in any prosecution concerning the communication of classified national security information, the government should be required to show that the offender either intended the disclosure to harm the United States or help a foreign nation, or that the offender was recklessly indifferent to the harm that the disclosure would cause. This standard is derived from the actual malice standard the Supreme Court set forth in New York Times v. Sullivan.

This Article argues that adoption of this clearer standard will encourage the government and the press to continue their historical cooperation when the publication of certain information poses a possible threat to national security interests. It will create an incentive for the government officials to explain their national security concerns to the press, and will simultaneously hold the press accountable for any reckless disregard shown to genuine threats. This approach seeks to strike the proper balance between the Executive's vast ability to control the dissemination of national security information to the public - often through calculated leaks - and the need to maintain the secrecy of information that is truly sensitive.

Keywords: national security, leaks, Espionage Act, classified information

Suggested Citation

Papandrea, Mary-Rose, Lapdogs, Watchdogs, and Scapegoats: The Press and National Security Information. Indiana Law Journal, January 2008, Boston College Law School Research Paper No. 133, Available at SSRN:

Mary-Rose Papandrea (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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