What was James Rosen thinking?

May 20, 2013

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 this morning’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? 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 [North Korea] 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.


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.









PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama looks through binoculars to see North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette during a visit to the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, north of Seoul March 25, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

OMG! He should have known better because the government was cracking down on reporters and changing how they deal with them? Are you serious? That’s like telling rape victims they should not have dressed so provocatively or maybe shouldn’t have been out alone on the street so late at night.

Posted by ChiTim | Report as abusive

And maybe it was just something the government had a legitimate reason to keep from leaking back to the North Koreans, that someone in their leadership was talking to the US. No doubt that someone will be discovered and disposed of without delay and the US will have lost a rare, irreplaceable human intel source.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Since when is it okay for anyone in any profession to leak dangerous government information to the public? Rosen has not been prevented from publishing his findings, nor has he been prosecuted. They weren’t after Rosen, they were after the leak.

Maybe journalists should all bang the drums to have The Patriot Act tossed out based on its unconstitutionality. National security was at risk. It’s that simple. The Patriot Act gives government broad discretion and they used it.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Focusing on the How this came about, seems like a small dot, in a much larger picture?

Posted by cmfraus | Report as abusive

He was asking for it. Look what he was wearing – er, I mean doing – for God’s sake.

Posted by tortoise40 | Report as abusive

So a State department official is leaking secret but useless information. Wanna bet there was an exchange of cash?

Posted by olepcola | Report as abusive

Here’s something Rosen wrote to Kim (taken from the affidavit supporting the search warrant, p.20):

“In short: Let’s break some news, and expose muddle-headed policy when we see it- or force the administration’s hand to go in the right direction, if possible.”

That sounds like politics, not journalism. Maybe Rosen would say he was encouraging the source to give him his scoop, but it sure looks to me like Rosen was motivated as much by politics as by any desire to report news.

Posted by DanSomeone | Report as abusive

James Rosen is one of the best. He knows rules and norms in his career. It is not illegal to ask for classified information, it is a crime to provide them to the requesting party. I have some difficulty understanding what this is about, actually. Rosen is not a political enemy of Obama’s, so… Not everyone at FOX is a rabid, evil Republican zealot. In fact, I think he is a Democrat. We are all privileged that James is out there, that he does what he does, and that he does it so well. This whole thing smells funny.

Posted by Easyrider6507 | Report as abusive

Just open my ‘Twitter feed?’ Okay sure. Right when I get done playing checkers at the rest home. Twitter. That was a good one. Hold on. I need to go visit Walgreen’s on Twitter. See what the latest prescription discounts are :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The rape analogies are incredibly weak and arguably offensive. That being said, serious question: Why isn’t it illegal for a journalist to try to persuade someone with clearance to disclose classified information? And as that’s a serious question, please don’t respond by glibly quoting the First Amendment, which if we were to read it literally guarantees the right to publish/report on (i.e., via the printing press) information once it’s been obtained and does not clearly state that individuals of a particular profession are granted special privileges when it comes to whether or not it’s okay for them to try to get somebody else to commit a crime on their behalf. And despite the fact that it’s largely been taken for granted that reporters can do this (because they always have done it), what we take for granted as being true isn’t always what actually is true. So again, why are journalists allowed to persuade people to commit any crimes–but crimes against the State in particular?

Posted by breakerbaker | Report as abusive

Before I chanced upon this article I was unaware of ‘Jack Schafer’ I was however,aware of James Rosen, who I tho/ught think w/as is a good reporter.

I am English, but I have always appreciated the origins and history, of the USA, and have great admiration for the philosophy of the founding fathers, they were amazing people.

The current administration, however, to destroy the greatest and purest nation that the we have ever seen.
Pure in that the wealth they created was based on trade and innovation.

Posted by gbatherton | Report as abusive

If your main problem with the AP fiasco is with Rosen’s lacking of journalistic common sense – I have a patriot act to sell you.

Posted by thelars | Report as abusive

“Since when is it okay for anyone in any profession to leak dangerous government information to the public?”

Since The Bay of Pigs, Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, Iran Contra, Iraq WMDs, Abu Grahib, CIA black sites & rendition, Torture, NSA warrantless surveillance… all of those were technically classified and if you used the same standards Obama is using, all of those reporters could have been named ‘conspirators’ and prosecuted, and we wouldn’t know about any of those things.

Reuters running this editorial is embarassing. Their first message was about the outcome of a battle – theoretically that could have been declared classified too.

Posted by ludmill | Report as abusive

I agree with the commenter above that there appears to have been a legitimate interest in not publicizing the fact that there was someone in the North Korean government (who’s likely been dead these past four years once they learned of his existence and hunted him down, thank you very much Mr. Rosen) providing us information. That fits in with operational intelligence, which should be something reporters go out of their way to protect, as they claim they do (but certainly didn’t here). The Washington Press Corpse swats at a mote in the government’s eyes while avoiding the beams in their own as they play suck-up to the people they should be exposing.

Posted by TCinLA | Report as abusive

How’s the USA PATRIOT Acts I & II working out for you now, you Bush & Co. lackeys in the media?


Posted by gene108 | Report as abusive

This is an awesome precedent, and one we should use now before they change it again.

Accuse Lois Lerner of being a “co-conspirator” so we can investigate her fully (pleading the 5th, like that matters)… then drop the charges so we didn’t “really” do anything wrong.

Then we’ll know what’s up with the whole IRS scandal; once we invade her privacy, bug her phone and hack her computers I’m sure we’ll find something to make this worthwhile.

“Rosen has not been prevented from publishing his findings, nor has he been prosecuted.”

See, it’s totally cool as long as you don’t prosecute them for a trumped up charge; you can violate their rights and privacy without limitation and it’s totally cool with everybody.

We should really do a lot more of this… that whole “Constitutional Rights” thing gets int he way of FAR too many investigations.

Think what we could find out if nobody had any rights? It would be great… right JL4?

Posted by ertdfg | Report as abusive

Is Julian Assange (from Wikileaks)…. press? Recall that he does not hack. He simply bundles and disseminates leaked classified information to the public. So does that constitute press? What about bloggers who just re-package news. Press? If so, are they immune from surveillance if knowingly handling classified information? We keep talking about ‘the press’ as though we agree on what that even is any more. Like it’s some guy in a Clark Kent hat.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@ertdfg, If I understand your sarcasm, which is unnecessary by the way, please understand that I’m not a fan of The Patriot Act. You are aware that Congress, under GW Bush, passed it into law giving the government a pretty-much free pass to do exactly the kind of unconstitutional search and seizure under the name of “National Security” and terrorism, right? All they have to do is word their reasoning right, and they can do what they want against the press, you, me, anyone they deem “a threat”.


a) it’s legal, and
b) it’s a Republican constructed law

My question was this: Why hasn’t the press attempted to sway public opinion with their power to influence (another good thing; I appreciate it every day) for a public outcry against The Patriot Act? Were they not aware? Of course they were. Did they just think it wouldn’t affect them since they have the 1st Amendment on their side (which they should)? And is the author’s point not taken? Rosen was a moron (my words, not the author’s).

Has anyone even READ the Patriot Act? Oh, it’s all about indignant hatred so no information necessary.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

how bad was his technique: well, he got the story and nobody else did. DOJ is now saying well, we knew he wasn’t a criminal but we had to say this to get a judge [on the third try]to let us go through all his calls, his parents calls, papers and the whole thing. This was, from the beginning, an attempt to intimidate Rosen and to attack Fox News more broadly, which Dem pols were talking about doing, including Obama. Where is the big surprise that they did what they said they said they were going to do?

Posted by RIGDUM | Report as abusive

Funny you should rip on Rosen when I’ve never even heard your name before…

Posted by Megapril | Report as abusive