Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a TV talk show that the Justice Department was actively investigating the leak of the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program and might prosecute the journalists who reported it.

“There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility,” he said.

Gonzales’ reading of the law should be taken seriously because he has written or signed off on some of the administration’s most questionable decisions _ like the very same warrantless wiretapping of international calls and e-mails, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act seems to quite clearly say warrants are required.

He signed off on a memo that condoned brutal treatment, if not outright torture, of prisoners taken in the war on terror and declared U.S. laws banning torture inapplicable. And he declared the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty calling for humane treatment of prisoners of war, “obsolete” and said that it too didn’t apply to enemy combatants.

The law that Gonzales is now reading closely because it might pertain to the leaks to the media is the Espionage Act of 1917, a broadly _ some would say sloppily _ drawn law that, among much else, criminalizes the possession of classified information. With good reason, the law has been little used since.

An amendment to the act during the hysteria of World War I makes it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government.

The law was of little use against actual espionage, but the Woodrow Wilson administration, which rivaled this White House in self-righteousness, used it enthusiastically to harass and jail labor leaders, socialists, conscientious objectors, pacifists, assorted other leftists and people who just plain shot off their mouths in ways that irritated the government. The government silenced something like 75 newspapers _ by barring them from the mail _ for opposing the Wilson administration on the war.

In essence, the actual use of the Espionage Act was to suppress domestic dissent. Based on the attorney general’s reading of that law, might it not be making a comeback in a similar role?

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)