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Bradley Manning and leaks to news media: Is US pursuit too hot? (+video)

Bradley Manning's mass disclosures to WikiLeaks 'triggered an intense reaction' inside the Obama administration to squelch future leaks to journalists – and to hunt down leakers, experts say. That reaction, in turn, is stirring debate about the right balance between secrecy and transparency.

A military judge has sentenced Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison for giving a trove of military and diplomatic secrets to the website WikiLeaks.
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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 August 21 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.”

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