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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.

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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.

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Of the seven individuals prosecuted during Mr. Obama’s tenure, three have gone to jail. (Two other cases are pending, charges were dropped in Drake's, and Snowden – who this spring gave certain newspapers classified documents about secret NSA surveillance programs that he claims are illegal – is not in US custody.)

More indictments may lie ahead. Retired Gen. James Cartwright – until August 2011 the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – in June was served a “target letter” indicating he is being investigated for leaking to the media details of a secret cyberweapon program, NBC News reported.

Defenders of the administration’s approach say the government has a right and a duty to plug leaks and to pursue leakers.

“If someone morally disagrees with the policy of government and unilaterally reveals a secret just because they believe it to be morally wrong, that puts our government on an unstable or anarchic path,” says Rahul Sagar, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University and the author of the forthcoming book “Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemma of State Secrecy.”

“If someone can just break regulations whenever they don’t like them, then what’s the point of having regulations,” he adds. “OK, I don’t like nuclear weapons, so I’ll reveal their locations. I don’t like the president’s Air Force One, so I’ll reveal its flight itinerary. Government can’t tolerate this. You try to change the law. You don’t just break the law.”

Behind the Obama team’s toughened stance toward leakers, say experts on both sides, are three key developments. One is the advent of mass leaks of classified information, made possible by digital technology. Another is better tools for tracking down those who leak. And the third is an overheated political environment that, coupled with overclassification of documents as secret, makes it difficult for the administration to use a softer touch. 

Mass leaks shock White House

Before the Digital Age, leakers could get their hands on a classified document or two. Now, it’s possible to store thousands of documents on a tiny thumb-drive or a CD, making a single leak much more damaging than in the past. 

“When you have so much more access to communications and information, it makes it so much easier to leak,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. 

That became blazingly apparent in April 2010, when WikiLeaks published leaked video footage of a 2007 air strike showing Iraqi journalists in Baghdad killed by a US military helicopter. Next, WikiLeaks – fed by Manning – published more than 76,000 classified US documents about the war in Afghanistan and many more that it called the “Iraq War Logs.” In all, Manning leaked more than 700,000 documents and other material, including some 250,000 diplomatic cables. A 2010 Pentagon report concluded that initial leaks, including the “war logs,” did not compromise intelligence sources or methods. But it did say the disclosures might damage US security in the future.

“WikiLeaks was such a shock to the Obama administration that it triggered an intense reaction and determination to squelch future leaks,” Mr. Aftergood says. “Security officials were determined to prevent a breach of that scale from occurring again. Part of that was a new zero tolerance policy toward leakers.”

The crackdown apparently comes from the very top. 

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