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Bradley Manning and leaks to news media: Is US pursuit too hot?

August 23, 2013

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US soldier Bradley Manning is escorted into court to receive his sentence at Fort Meade in Maryland. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US soldier Bradley Manning is escorted into court to receive his sentence at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Obama administration’s zealous prosecution of those who leak classified information to news media is triggering a hot debate in America over where to draw the line between tight-lipped national security and the need for government transparency in a free society.

The high-profile court martial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning over the WikiLeaks episode, followed by US efforts to bring Edward Snowden back to the US after his revelations about domestic surveillance programs, are the latest catalysts for discussions now raging – from the halls of Congress to oped pages to dinner tables across the country.

At the center of it all is the Espionage Act, a 1917 law drafted to protect national defense information in time of war. On one side are those who see leakers such as Manning and Mr. Snowden as spies and traitors; on the other are those who see their decisions to reveal US secrets as a measure of public service, akin more to whistle-blowing or even true patriotism.

With Manning sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in military prison, the Obama administration has its latest poster child for the punishment that can befall those who disclose classified secrets to journalists. Indeed, the Manning-WikiLeaks case has been a major trigger for the government’s intense push to plug leaks – a strategy that marks a departure from previous presidents, who seldom used the Espionage Act to go after federal workers caught leaking material to the news media (as opposed to leaking to, say, the nation’s avowed enemies).

Under President Obama, seven people have been prosecuted under the act for leaking classified documents to the press, compared with three during all previous presidencies.

“The statistics are startling and show that something new is going on,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “The number of [Espionage Act] prosecutions for disclosures to the media has now more than doubled compared to all previous administrations combined.”

Penalties under the Espionage Act range from 10 years to life in prison – or the death penalty in cases in which a spy’s intent is to help a foreign government. Manning, although found not guilty of “aiding the enemy” for releasing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks for publication on the Internet, was convicted on six counts of violating the Espionage Act.

Such prosecutions are intended to send a warning to federal employees who may be considering leaking classified information to the media, say whistle-blower and media advocates. They characterize the Obama administration crackdown as the most ambitious antileak crusade in US history – and predict that it could have a chilling effect on press freedoms and the public’s right to know.

America’s “approach to national security secrets is badly out of whack,” says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center. “Anyone who is caught leaking classified information, regardless of his intent or the effect of his disclosures, is prosecuted under the Espionage Act as a traitor. Yet the government is never held accountable for inappropriate secrecy or for any misconduct it may hide. This imbalance is unhealthy for our democracy.” Read more in the Christian Science Monitor.

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