Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

David Petraeus's actions were more serious than Edward Snowden's, but the potential penalties are very different, Daniel Ellsberg, pictured above, said Thursday. (Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr/cc)

Daniel Ellsberg: Petraeus Case Shows Hypocrisy of Whistleblower Crackdown

If Petraeus did not commit a felony, neither did Snowden, Manning, Sterling, or Kiriakou, says leaker of Pentagon Papers

Nadia Prupis

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.

Timm writes:

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".

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.

Timm continues:

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."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Top Central Banks Told to Stop 'Bankrolling' Deforestation

"At a time when the climate crisis is ravaging countries across the world, it is unacceptable," a Global Witness campaigner said of the institutions' corporate bond-buying practices.

Jessica Corbett ·


'Obscene,' Says Sanders After CBO Reports Richest 1% Now Owns Over 1/3 of US Wealth

"In the richest country on Earth, the time is long overdue for us to create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%."

Brett Wilkins ·


Demanding Broad Reforms, Thousands of Inmate Workers on Strike at Alabama Prisons

"The DOJ's intervention has done nothing to shift conditions inside Alabama prisons," said one supporter. "They remain incredibly unsafe, inhumane, and exploitative."

Julia Conley ·


'We'll Beat You Again,' Say Climate Advocates as Biden Eyes New Path for Manchin's Dirty Deal

"Shame on President Biden and the White House for doubling down on environmental deregulation to benefit dirty industry," said one campaigner.

Jake Johnson ·


Experts Sound Alarm Over 'Growing Threat' of Genetically Engineered Trees

"Development of genetically engineered trees is advancing despite the serious risks to our forests and continued opposition around the world," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo