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.”
As Manning’s leaked information gushed onto the Internet via WikiLeaks in early 2010, the administration began hitting back at past leakers who had been fired or demoted. Caught up in it was Thomas Drake, a former executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), who in 2005 had leaked inside information to a newspaper reporter about waste and failures of one of the agency’s terrorism surveillance programs. In April 2010, the Obama administration charged him under the Espionage Act for that leak five years earlier, alleging that the leaked information was classified. But a year later, all five espionage charges against him were dropped, with the judge chastising the government. Today, Mr. Drake maintains that he never leaked classified information and was just a whistle-blower doing his patriotic duty.