WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday that he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information, citing an obligation to national security.
Gonzales also said the government will not hesitate to track telephone calls made by reporters as part of a criminal leak investigation, but officials would not do so routinely and randomly.
''There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility," Gonzales said of prosecutions. ''We have an obligation to enforce those laws. We have an obligation to ensure that our national security is protected."
In recent months, journalists have been called into court to testify as part of investigations into leaks, including the disclosure of a CIA operative's name as well as the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she presumed that Gonzales was referring to the 1917 Espionage Act, which she said has never been interpreted to prosecute journalists who were providing information to the public.
''I can't imagine a bigger chill on free speech and the public's right to know what its government is up to -- both hallmarks of a democracy -- than prosecuting reporters," Dalglish said.
Gonzales said he would not comment specifically on whether The New York Times should be prosecuted for disclosing the NSA program last year based on classified information.
He also denied that authorities would randomly check journalists' records on domestic-to-domestic telephone calls to find confidential sources. ''We don't engage in domestic-to-domestic surveillance without a court order" under a ''probable-cause" legal standard, Gonzales said..
But he added that the First Amendment right of a free press should not be absolute when it comes to security. If the government's probe into the NSA leak turns up criminal activity, prosecutors have an ''obligation to enforce the law."
''It can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity," Gonzales told ABC's ''This Week."