This past summer, a federal judge unsealed grand jury transcripts from a 1942 investigation of the Chicago Tribune for violating the Espionage Act.
The investigation was in response to a front page article about America’s victory at the Battle of Midway — in which the Tribune leaked one of the biggest secrets of World War 2: US codebreakers (from the precursor to the NSA) had broken Japan’s code.
The article leaking the US military secret was headlined “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan To Strike At Sea” — it ran the same day the US victory at Midway was reported, and was republished in the Tribune’s sister publications, The New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald.
The article began,
The strength of the Japanese forces with which the American navy is battling somewhere west of Midway Island in what is believed to be the greatest naval battle of the war, was well known in American naval circles several days before the battle began, reliable sources in the naval intelligence disclosed here tonight.
FDR’s Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, was furious, of course. Knox asked the attorney general, Francis Biddle, to charge the Tribune’s reporter who leaked the story, Stanley Johnston, under the Espionage Act—which could carry the death penalty. And to investigate whether the paper’s managing editor—and therefore the corporation, and its publisher––could be held criminally liable.
It was the last time the federal government tried to charge a newspaper or journalist with treason for leaking, though many have contemplated it since — most recently when the Bush Administration announced it was looking into charging the New York Times under the Espionage Act for leaking the NSA warrantless wiretap story that was revived a few years ago with Edward Snowden’s leaks…