Joe Lieberman atop FBI would be a First Amendment disaster

May 22, 2017

Former Senator Joe Lieberman is reportedly President Trump’s leading choice to replace the recently-fired James Comey as FBI director. If you’re a person who values free speech and press freedom rights, it’s hard to imagine a worse pick for FBI director than Lieberman.

It was only a week ago we learned that Trump allegedly urged Comey in a private meeting to prosecute reporters for publishing classified information. So one of the most vital issues for any confirmation hearing will be whether the next FBI director will respect journalists’ right to report on the government. You don’t have to look far to understand how dangerous an FBI Director Lieberman would be to the journalism profession.

In 2010, when WikiLeaks, in conjunction with The New York Times, The Guardian, and other papers, started publishing secret State Department cables, then-Senator Lieberman was Congress’s leading advocate for prosecuting the publishers of the cables—First Amendment be damned. At the time, he loudly called for the prosecution of WikiLeaks, saying, “I don’t understand why that hasn’t happened yet. … I think it’s the most serious violation of the Espionage Act in our history, and the consequences globally that have occurred.”

ICYMI: Stop treating former CIA chief Michael Hayden as an arbiter of truth

As for The New York Times, he said they also should be investigated and suggested they should be prosecuted. “To me,” he said, “New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship. And whether they’ve committed a crime, I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department,” adding it’s “a serious legal question that has to be answered.”

While Lieberman didn’t get his wish, he did use his power as a member of Congress to pressure Amazon to stop hosting WikiLeaks on its servers. After Amazon complied, Lieberman went on television and called for other US companies to do the same. Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal followed suit, financially censoring WikiLeaks despite no court proceeding or official government action of any kind against WikiLeaks.

If Joe Lieberman is confirmed as FBI director, it’s possible he will attempt to use the agency’s vast powers to prosecute the press—stamping out one of the only ways Trump’s power can be checked.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Still not fully satisfied, Lieberman wrote leak legislation that would have criminalized publishing certain information regarding human sources of intelligence of US agencies. As Wired made clear at the time, “Leaking such information in the first place is already a crime, so the measure is aimed squarely at publishers.”

The Justice Department this year has indicated it wants to prosecute WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange. No matter what you think of WikiLeaks—even if you dislike them in the extreme—the same danger that existed in 2010 remains today: Any precedent used against WikiLeaks can certainly be turned on the Times, Post, or any other newspaper that prints a story Trump finds offensive. Lieberman is living proof that that is a clear and present danger.

RELATED: From cyberattacks to fake news: notable recent changes in AP style

The episode in 2010 is only one of many incidents in Lieberman’s career in which he pushed censorship to stamp out speech.

It was Lieberman who led the effort in 2009 to suppress evidence of war crimes when it was clear the Freedom of Information Act should have compelled the release of photos showing US military members engaging in torture. Lieberman wrote an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that essentially created a new exemption to FOIA that allowed the US government to keep the photos of the Bush era crimes secret.

In 2008, Lieberman tried to pressure Google to censor hundreds of YouTube videos that were supposedly promoting terrorism or Islamic extremism, without any court intervention or any laws to back him up. At the time, The New York Times editorial board castigated Lieberman, saying he “is trying to pressure YouTube to pull down videos he does not like” and that “it is important for online speech to be protected against these assaults,” adding “it is profoundly disturbing that an influential senator would even consider telling a media company to shut down constitutionally protected speech.”

In 2011, before leaving the Senate for good, Lieberman pushed an “Internet kill switch” bill before he left the Senate which would give the government wide authority to attempt to shut down portions of the Internet in the case of a “cyber emergency.” He authored an amendment that would’ve repealed whistleblower protections and strengthened the state-secret privilege, of which whistleblower groups at the time said “will set whistleblower protections back 30 years for hundreds of thousands of federal employees.” Early in his career he tried to censor violent video games and music with explicit lyrics.

The press is engaged in one of the great investigative reporting periods in modern history and is almost single-handedly holding the Trump administration accountable where Congress has fallen down—even in the face of a torrent of criticism and the specter of aggressive leak investigations. If Joe Lieberman is confirmed as FBI director, it’s possible he will attempt to use the agency’s vast powers to prosecute the press—stamping out one of the only ways Trump’s power can be checked.

ICYMI: A hidden message in memo justifying Comey’s firing

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. He is also a twice-weekly columnist for the Guardian, where he writes about privacy, national security, and the media.