The case of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, convicted of stealing and then leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents, has spurred an unprecedented, governmentwide crackdown on leaks.
Though acquitted of “aiding the enemy,” a charge that could have brought a life sentence, Manning was found guilty under the Espionage Act of six counts of stealing secret documents that he then delivered to the anti-secrets website WikiLeaks, which published them.
But long before Tuesday’s verdict, this case had made a major impact on government agencies and the Pentagon, which were given explicit orders by the White House to plug the leaks – and to investigate the identity of leakers and charge them as spies, close observers say.
In all, seven current or previous government officials or contractors have been charged with espionage for leaking secrets since President Obama took office –compared with three cases under all prior presidents.
“Manning is one of very few people ever charged under the Espionage Act prosecutions for leaks to the media,” says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “The only other person who was convicted after trial was pardoned. Despite the lack of any evidence that he intended any harm to the United States, Manning faces decades in prison. That’s a very scary precedent.”
Overall, Manning leaked more than 700,000 documents and other material, including about a quarter million State Department diplomatic cables. Even so, the initial spate of leaks did not compromise intelligence sources or practices, though it might still cause damage to US security interests in the future, a 2010 Pentagon report concluded.
Whatever its future impact might be, Manning’s massive leak of secret documents has in the present catalyzed the Obama administration to act vigorously – some critics say harshly – to curb leaks of classified information as a matter of policy, several observers say.
“WikiLeaks was such a shock to the Obama administration that it triggered an intense reaction and determination to squelch future leaks,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “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.”
Beginning in 2011, the Obama administration launched an “Insider Threat Program” across the federal government, including non-intelligence agencies like the Department of Agriculture, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers. Around the same time, cybersecurity experts observed moves in key government agencies and in the Pentagon to implement technology to block leaks.
“The military has taken very significant action in a number of key ways to prevent such a mass disclosure again,” says Paul Williams, executive director of security services for White Badger Group, a cybersecurity company in Breinigsville, Pa., that has worked with the Pentagon. “Some of these ways are technical, some are procedural. A number of other initiatives are aimed at getting at the root cause of why people sometimes become an insider threat in the first place.”
Defending the administration’s criminal investigations of classified leaks, Mr. Obama has said that the leaks pose genuine national-security concerns.
“Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” the president told reporters at a press conference May 16. “They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various, dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.”
Indeed, leaks of classified material can be very damaging to national security – as they have been when spies like Robert Hanssen, Ronald Pelton, and Aldrich Ames take aim. But many leaks by whistle-blowers have proved useful to the public by revealing government waste, fraud, and abuse.
A classic case is that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the war in Vietnam, to The New York Times. Because not all classified-document leaks are created equal, they should not be treated that way, whistle-blower and free-speech advocates argue.
"While we're relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act," Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said in a statement.
Edward Snowden, who was a National Security Agency contractor, in June released top-secret documents that revealed surveillance programs, which has engendered a national debate.
Still, the major impact of the ongoing crackdown, legal observers say, is to send a message that leaks – even of classified information that reveals waste, fraud, or abuse in government – will not be tolerated.
"The message sent by Manning's prosecution, and the resulting verdict, is clear: Anyone who reveals government information protected from disclosure will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” says Fernando Pinguelo, chairman of the cybersecurity group at Scarinci Hollenbeck, a New Jersey law firm.
“This case transcends this one individual and his conduct,” he says. “Individuals entrusted with the type of information at issue here must know they cannot simply reveal it without being held responsible."