A close reading of the Fox News story at the center of Washington’s latest scandal

A close reading of the Fox News story at the center of Washington’s latest scandal

On Monday, the Washington Post revealed that the Justice Department obtained sweeping access to a reporter’s email account and tracked his movements inside the State Department as part of an investigation into how that reporter — James Rosen of Fox News — got his hands on classified intelligence in 2009 about how North Korea would respond to upcoming U.N. sanctions.

In order to gain access to his emails, the FBI argued that Rosen was a possible co-conspirator in the release of a U.S. intelligence report revealing that North Korea might react to fresh Security Council sanctions by conducting another test of a nuclear bomb. It’s a line of legal reasoning that now has members of the press up in arms, since designating people who receive classified information co-conspirators could put many national security reporters in the crosshairs of investigators for routine journalism work. (There’s some irony in the fact that Fox News, which led the drumbeat last year against the White House and the New York Times for leaking and publishing sensitive national security information, has now morphed into a defender of the right to publish leaked intelligence reports.)

So what is it about Rosen’s June 11, 2009 story that prompted federal investigators to take such aggressive and unprecedented action? A close read reveals what appears to be a fairly unexceptional piece of Washington journalism — albeit one that probably could have been more careful in its treatment of classified information. And amid the outcry over the trampling of press freedoms, one important detail has been largely overlooked: The leaked CIA assessment at the center of the controversy was wrong.

Here’s how Rosen’s story begins (emphasis ours):

U.S. intelligence officials have warned President Obama and other senior American officials that North Korea intends to respond to the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution this week — condemning the communist country for its recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests — with another nuclear test, FOX News has learned.

What’s more, Pyongyang’s next nuclear detonation is but one of four planned actions the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea, that the regime of Kim Jong-Il intends to take — but not announce — once the Security Council resolution is officially passed, likely on Friday.

The other three actions include the reprocessing of all of the North’s spent plutonium fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium; a major escalation in the North’s uranium-enrichment program; and the launching of another Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile from the Yunsong military complex on the west coast of North Korea. The North last launched a Taepodong-2 on April 5; it conducted its second nuclear test in the last three years on Memorial Day.

According to the government, Rosen learned this information through an arms expert at the State Department, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim — a conclusion investigators arrived at after looking into which U.S. officials had access to the leaked report. It’s a pretty standard investigative technique — one that may have been made easier by sloppy journalistic practices on Rosen’s part.

The question, then, is whether North Korean intelligence agents could have used the same technique to track down the CIA’s source inside North Korea. But in considering this question, it’s important to remember that the CIA’s assessment was wrong. On June 12, the day after Rosen published his story, the U.N. Security Council passed the beefed-up sanctions package referenced in the article. But North Korea didn’t carry out another nuclear test until February 2012. That suggests the CIA’s source in North Korea may not have been reliable or clued into official thinking, which would have made the job of our hypothetical North Korean intelligence agent charged with finding the CIA’s source inside the country much more difficult.

Rosen’s story continues:

The intelligence community only learned of North Korea’s plans this week, prompting CIA to alert senior officials. Asked who would be briefed on this kind of data, a source told FOX News: "The top people: POTUS, DNI." "POTUS" is acronym for the president of the United States; "DNI" refers to the director of the Office of National Intelligence.

If there is a criticism to be leveled at Rosen, it is that he could — and maybe should — have gone to greater lengths to conceal the origin of the reported information. Not only did he reveal that the CIA received its intelligence from sources inside the country, but he also exposed the timeline of when the agency heard from its source.

FOX News is withholding some details about the sources and methods by which American intelligence agencies learned of the North’s plans so as to avoid compromising sensitive overseas operations in a country — North Korea — U.S. spymasters regard as one of the world’s most difficult to penetrate.

A White House official, contacted by FOX News, declined to comment, saying only that the U.S. government never speaks publicly about intelligence matters.

Following this section on withholding sources and methods, Rosen’s piece moves on to a fairly technical discussion of missile movements inside North Korea. The article certainly provides a window into the intelligence community’s thinking on a crucial issue. But I doubt Rosen will look back on the scoop as the capstone of his career in journalism.