The U.S. government's "hand-slap" treatment of former CIA director David Petraeus, who in 2012 leaked classified military information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell, stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Sterling, and John Kiriakou—and should be the turning point away from such policies.
So says renowned Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing secret U.S. military documents related to the Vietnam War in 1971. Snowden, who leaked a trove of classified NSA documents to journalists, now also faces prosecution under the Espionage Act.
Speaking to Trevor Timm at the Guardian on Thursday, Ellsberg noted that the "actual charges against [Edward Snowden] are not more serious, as violations of the classification regulations and non-disclosure agreements, than those Petraeus has admitted to, which are actually quite spectacular."
According to the indictment against Petraeus, he handed over to Broadwell eight "black books" containing classified information designated Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information—a level higher than Top Secret—and included "identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings … and [his personal] discussions with the president of the United States."
On Tuesday, Petraeus pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of "unauthorized removal and retention of classified material." Under the parameters of the plea deal he made with the Justice Department, prosecutors will recommend two years probation and no jail time.
Compare that to the actions of Chelsea Manning, who is serving 35 years for leaking classified information. As Ellsberg noted: "Chelsea Manning had access to SCI every day… where she worked in Iraq. She chose to disclose none of it, nothing higher than Secret".
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There is also the case of Jeffrey Sterling, convicted last month of leaking classified information to New York Times journalist James Risen, "having first revealed it to Congress, as I did," Ellsberg continued.
Sterling was also convicted under the Espionage Act and will be sentenced later this year. Manning is serving 35 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Ellsberg says Sterling’s "violations of security regulations were in no way more serious than what Petraeus has now admitted to", and that, while it’s too late to do anything about his conviction, the judge should take the Petraeus plea bargain into account at his sentencing.
"If disclosing the identities of covert agents to an unauthorized person and storing them in several unauthorized locations deserves a charge with a maximum sentence of one year," Ellsberg said, "then Edward Snowden should face not more than that same one count."
"The government had the chance to hold Petreaus out as an example on the same felony Espionage Act charges they’ve leveled (unfairly) against every conscientious whistleblower they’ve indicted," Timm concludes. "Their answer? Leaking should no longer be a felony. Let’s make sure we hold them to that, and not only for CIA Directors."