We’ve written a lot about how the current US administration has treated unauthorised disclosures of classified information. Whether those disclosures be matters of huge public significance or relatively trivial, the reaction has been to seek to prosecute those responsible under the 1917 Espionage Act.
As is well known, the Obama administration has initiated twice as many Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous US administrations combined. Denied the ability to put forward a public interest defence, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment and CIA whistleblower John Kirakou is still the only person to have been prosecuted in relation to America’s state sanctioned torture programme. And, as last week’s Pentagon Inspector General’s Office report on the treatment of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake shows, there’s no accountability for the wrongs inflicted on defendants during in Espionage Act investigation.
The emergence of former CIA director and general David Petraeus’ plea deal this week places this suffering into sharp relief. Petraeus shared eight “black books” with his biographer and mistress, containing information that included covert officers’ identities, classified notes and details about US intelligence. By his own admission, the top secret information in those Black Books was more sensitive than anything Chelsea Manning ever disclosed.
Nevertheless, under the terms of his plea bargain, Petraeus will plead guilty to a misdemeanour and serve no more than two year’s probation and a $40,000 fine. He was never indicted under the Espionage act and will not face repurcussions for lying to FBI agents.
As John Kirakou and Marcy Wheeler point out in a recent interview, there’s a glaring inequity here, with sufficient prominence acting as a safeguard against prosecution, even in matters which the US government appears to regard as priorities. More than that, it demonstrates, quite clearly, that Espionage Act prosecutions are explicitly political. As Jesselyn Radack notes in a piece which brings out this dynamic very clearly:
Now that the government has put forth a new model of how to deal appropriately with unauthorized disclosures, I suspect that Snowden would entertain returning to the United States for the kind of plea bargain that Petraeus received.
Too bad that kind of leniency is reserved for generals sharing information with their mistress-biographers — not normal Americans trying to expose government wrongdoing.