WASHINGTON -- Representatives of major news organizations, which could be prosecuted for publishing details of U.S. intelligence operations, say they have broken no laws and have no plans to change their editorial policies.
Several of them said Wednesday that CIA Director William Casey apparently accused The Washington Post, Newsweek magazine, The Washington Times, The New York Times and Time magazine of violating a 1950 statute because he is upset over recent coverage of U.S. investigations into Libyan terrorist attacks.
Casey told the Post he had discussed with Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen the possibility of criminal prosecution under the law prohibiting 'knowingly and willfully' disclosing classified information about codes or 'communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government.'
'We've already got five absolute cold violations,' the Post quoted Casey as saying.
However, the Justice Department is resisting Casey's call for prosecution, The New York Times reported today, citing unidentified administration officials.
Casey told the Times he met with Justice Department officials Friday and unsuccessfully sought a department commitment to prosecute the Post if that newspaper published information it obtained about the National Security Agency, the officials said.
They said Casey also explored the idea of asking the courts to forbid news organizations to publish or broadcast highly classified information as future cases arise.
The administration officials said the Justice Department showed little enthusiasm for prosecuting news organizations or seeking court prior restraint orders.
But they added that Attorney General Edwin Meese had not yet given his views.
'We don't know what the charge relates to,' Time general counsel Harry Johnston said in a telephone interview. Spokesman for The New York Times and Newsweek also said they had not been contacted by the CIA and were unaware of violating any laws.
'We would suggest that the problem lies with administration officials who have been feeding sensitive information to the press for political purposes,' Newsweek said in a statement.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor of The Washington Times, said he would continue to publish whatever he deems to be in the public interest, 'the CIA notwithstanding.'
'Bill Casey has reminded us that there is a statute that prohibits publication of special intelligence intercepts and we have reminded him that we are in a delicate area where national security and the First Amendment can conflict, and we are very sensitive to that issue,' de Borchgrave said.
The CIA director cited the Post and Newsweek for reporting on U.S. intercepts of messages between the Libyan People's Bureau in East Berlin and Libyan authorities in Tripoli that linked Libya to the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub.
Casey did not specify the stories that led the administration to consider prosecution of the other three news organizations.
'The president himself first revealed the nature of these intercepted messages,' said Leonard Downie, the Post's managing editor. 'What we reported subsequent to that -- details of the intercept -- did not do anything more to reveal our intelligence capabilities than the president himself did.'
Casey said no final decision had been made to prosecute the news organizations under the statute, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
He also told Downie and Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee not to publish another story the newspaper has gathered that deals with U.S. intelligence capabilities.
Post officials refused to discuss the story, but The New York Times reported Wednesday that the newspaper has obtained classified documents involving Ronald Pelton, a former communications specialist facing trial on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.
The Justice Department had no comment.
The administration officials said the CIA had not formally referred Casey's list of alleged violations by the five news organizations to the Justice Department for prosecution, and one speculated Casey merely threatened prosecution to persuade the Post not to publish its report.
The Times said Bradlee, late Tuesday, told the newspaper the Post was still studying the question of whether to publish the report. He said it had been scheduled to appear in last Sunday's edition, but was withheld after Casey's request.