In a story that has echoes of the current cases of Amry PFC Bradley Manning and former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, the U.S. government attempted to aggressively prosecute a journalist who revealed early in World War II that American intelligence agencies had cracked the Japanese military’s secret code language. According to the Wall Street Journal, recently disclosed Justice Department documents show that government prosecutors contemplated not only punishing the reporter who wrote the story, but staff and editors at the newspaper that printed it, too.
In late July, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel released a slew of departmental memos from a period of years spanning from 1933 to 1977. Among them are documents that reveal a push to prosecute Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston, who saw a confidential U.S. Naval intelligence brief when he was embedded with the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
On June 4, 1942, the first day of the three-day Battle of Midway, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald jointly published a Johnston scoop alleging that the U.S. Navy had received advanced knowledge of the size and strength of the Japanese navy fleet. The article never came right out and said that the U.S. had cracked the Japanese code, but officials believed that message was clear enough from the piece.
In one of the recently revealed memos, Navy Secretary Frank Knox wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle asking about the legality of prosecuting Johnston for his revelations, which he believed could compromise the U.S. war effort. He sought input from staff about how to build a case against the journalist.
Within 10 days, prosecutors said that they could establish a case against Johnston, even though he did not mention any specific details about U.S. troop movement or size.
“The reporter’s conduct…is characterized by real turpitude and disregard of his obligations as a citizen. It is hard to believe that any judge or jury would take a sympathetic view of his case, or seek to free him on any narrow view of the facts of the law,” wrote Assistant Solicitor General Oscar S. Cox.
Cox conceded that it might be difficult to get the death penalty for Johnston, which would require a conviction for aiding the enemy. A conviction under that charge could only be obtained if it could be established that Johnston had written the article with the express intent that it should reach the enemies’ hands and endanger U.S. personnel.
The Justice Department also explored whether or not the Tribune itself was equally liable in the charges because it published Johnston’s scoop. Cox wrote that if Johnston’s editors had “directed the reporter to obtain information in every possible way—including the taking or copying of secret documents—without permission,” then they “might perhaps be indicted for conspiracy.”
It is worth noting that the Tribune at that juncture was published by interests unfriendly to the Roosevelt administration. Col. Robert R. McCormick was a fierce opponent of the New Deal and of intervention into World War II. Naval Sec. Knox had edited the Tribune‘s rival paper, the Chicago Daily News and the two men had an extant feud stretching back years.
The government’s case, according to historians, was shoddy at best and the prosecution team was unable to convict Johnston of anything. In what the Journal called “a stunning rebuke to prosecutors,” a grand jury dismissed all charges against Johnston.
[image of Tribune publisher Robert R. “Colonel” McCormick via Wikipedia]