WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama believes journalists shouldn't be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the White House said Tuesday, showing solidarity with First Amendment advocates alarmed by a pair of high-profile federal probes into national security leaks.
Although Obama believes leaking classified information violates the law, he also believes that a free press is critical - and that questions being raised about the proper balance between those two concerns are entirely appropriate, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"I can't comment on the specifics of any ongoing criminal matter," Carney said. "But if you're asking me whether the president believes that journalists should be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the answer is no."
That was a departure from the day before, when Carney declined to answer a question about whether it's appropriate for a reporter who published classified information to be treated as a potential criminal. "I understand the question and I appreciate it, but I cannot comment," Carney said.
Concerns about the Justice Department's efforts to unearth reporters' confidential sources in leak investigations have put the White House in a difficult position, unable to defend itself against claims that the administration is encroaching on press freedoms without commenting on pending investigations - a move the White House says would be wholly inappropriate. Making it tougher for Obama to weigh in is the fact that the Justice Department probes essentially amount to criminal investigations of officials within his own administration.
Shortly after The Associated Press reported last week that prosecutors had secretly subpoenaed phone records for its reporters, the White House endorsed the idea of reviving media shield legislation in the Senate, a gesture designed to show it takes protections for journalists seriously even if it can't say whether its own Justice Department acted appropriately. But tensions over the issue were ratcheted up Monday after developments in another case revealed that an investigator had declared that a journalist who discloses leaked information is committing a crime.
In that case, prosecutors got a search warrant for the private emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen and used State Department building security records to track his movements as they sought to identify his source in a story about North Korea. That case led to the indictment of an official for revealing classified information, but prosecutors declined to arrest or seek an indictment of Rosen.
Fox News would not comment Tuesday on Carney's remarks, pointing instead to comments a day earlier from its executive vice president of news, Michael Clemente. He called the Rosen case "downright chilling" and vowed to "unequivocally defend his right to operate as a member of what up until now has always been a free press."
The White House Correspondents' Association said Tuesday that taken together, the two cases raise serious questions about whether the government has gotten too aggressive in tracking and monitoring reporters.
"We stand in strong solidarity with our colleagues who have been scrutinized. And in terms of the administration, ultimately what will matter more in all of these cases is action not words," the association said in a statement released by its board members and its president, Fox News Channel correspondent Ed Henry.