WASHINGTON — I was at home, putting the finishing touches on an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, when my cellphone rang.
Answering it, I heard a deep, heavily accented voice that instantly transported me back to my days as a Moscow correspondent a couple decades ago.
“Good afternoon, Sergei Moiseyev, Tass. Is this James Rosen?”
“Yes,” I responded. (I am using a pseudonym for the Tass news agency reporter’s real name in order to protect my sources.)
My caller spoke in English with a Russian accent.
“I would like to ask you how it feels to be the target of a criminal investigation by the administration of President Obama?” he asked.
For a moment, I felt like I was part of some bizarre Russian sting operation. Then I realized it was just another case of mistaken identity. I’d read the Washington Post article that morning about the Justice Department having named my friend James Rosen of Fox News in a 2010 criminal probe and having seized his emails.
“I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong James Rosen,” I responded.
Long pause. My caller’s confusion was heightened by my switch to speaking in Russian.
“You are not the same James Rosen who is a reporter for Fox News?”
“No, I am the James Rosen who is a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers.”
Another pause. The embarrassment was palpable.
“I am terribly sorry,” he said finally. “I did not know that there were two people named James Rosen who are both correspondents in Washington.”
When my caller hung up, I emailed James to alert him that in addition to whatever problems he was having with the current U.S. government, the KGB might be on his tail.
Tongue firmly planted in digital cheek, I offered to be a character witness for him. James responded with his characteristic good humor, thanking me for my support.
James and I have been pals ever since we started getting each other’s calls and emails soon after his arrival in Washington in 1999.
He would call to describe with great delight an angry but misdirected email chastising him for one of my articles about Sen. Jesse Helms, whom I covered closely for the Raleigh News & Observer. I’d tell him about a tirade from someone who’d seen one of his broadcast reports on President Clinton.
Our exchanges evolved into drinks and the occasional dinner. I came to enjoy his quick wit, along with an obsessive interest in the Beatles and encyclopedic knowledge of all things John, Paul, Ringo and George. I read his fine biography of John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager-turned-AG.
He took to calling me “Doppelganger” — German for “double” or twin. Just a couple weeks ago, he gave me a Twitter shout-out to a reader who’d commended a McClatchy article on Benghazi to which I’d contributed: “No, that is actually my dear friend James Rosen, a fine reporter over at McClatchy, reachable on Twitter via @jamesmartinrose.”
But this past week has been different. My friends have expressed relief and co-workers have kidded me about “the other James Rosen” who got crossways with the Obama administration. And there’ve been a bunch of misdirected emails from sympathetic supporters of James.
One “concerned citizen” offered to hook James up with a Swiss email service provider “that is beyond the reach of our federal government,” adding assurances that the good citizen doesn’t “receive any financial compensation from this company.”
My own concern goes beyond my friendship with James.
In key respects, his case is more disturbing than DOJ’s parallel probe of the Associated Press, in which federal investigators obtained AP phone records as they tracked the government source of details about a foiled terrorism plot in Yemen.
By contrast, the FBI affidavit for a warrant to search James’ private Gmail account accused him of having acted “much like an intelligence offer would run a clandestine intelligence source.”
The affidavit described him as a probable “aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator” to Stephen Jim-Won Kim, a then-State Department adviser who allegedly leaked classified information about how North Korea might respond to U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program.
It was the first known instance of the federal government directly targeting a reporter who receives sensitive information in addition to the source who provides it.
Major new organizations and journalists criticized the government action as an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment.
“The Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news,” The New York Times wrote in an editorial.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, told PBS NewsHour: “What they were saying is that for committing an act of journalism, you can be deemed a criminal.”
James came in for some criticism for not doing enough to protect his alleged source. Jack Shafer, a Reuters media analyst, outlined a series of personal and email exchanges from the affidavit that he said were too transparent and left both of them exposed.
Ironically, given the FBI’s comparison of James to an intelligence officer, Shafer criticized him for not behaving enough like a spy.
Since three years have passed, it’s unlikely that James will be charged. But he was probably never the feds’ real target. DOJ’s aggressive action seems like a shot across the bow aimed at intimidating government employees and making them think twice before talking with reporters.
Obama himself said in his national security speech last week: “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”
As for James, I asked him a few days after the initial story broke whether he might be available for an interview to hash all this over. With uncharacteristic but understandable reserve, he referred me to the public relations folks at Fox News.