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The modern national security state is more powerful than ever – more powerful even than during the Cold War. It demands democratic accountability. The last and best source of that accountability is a free press. (Image: ACLU)

On Leak Prosecutions, Obama Takes it to 11. (Or Should We Say 526?)

Gabe Rottman

 by Speak Freely / ACLU

James Risen is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He's also currently under subpoena, possibly facing jail time, because of his reporting.

Specifically, he's being investigated because of an article on a CIA ploy to hinder Iran's quest for a nuclear bomb that went epically sideways and may have actually helped Iran along. 60 Minutes ran a great story on him this weekend, during which they cited a well-known statistic: the Obama administration has prosecuted more national security "leakers" than all other presidencies combined, eight to three.

But the story also prompted me to look into another figure, which is less well known and potentially more dramatic. Partially because of press freedom concerns, sentencing in media leak cases has historically been relatively light. Not so under President Obama. When it comes to sending these folks to jail, the Obama administration blows every other presidency combined out of the water – by a lot.

By my count, the Obama administration has secured 526 months of prison time for national security leakers, versus only 24 months total jail time for everyone else since the American Revolution. It's important – and telling – to note that the bulk of that time is the 35 years in Fort Leavenworth handed down to Chelsea Manning.

It takes a bit of digging to find all this information. As my public service for the day, here's a rundown of every leak case, the sentence (if there was one), and its current disposition.

Pre-Obama Cases

  • Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo (1973). Famous national security whistleblowers prosecuted for releasing the Pentagon Papers. Sentence: Charges dropped after revelations that President Nixon's henchmen burglarized Ellsberg's psychoanalyst looking for dirt and tried to bribe the judge in their case with the directorship of the FBI.
  • Samuel Morison (1985). Naval analyst who sent pictures of the Soviet navy to Jane's Fighting Ships, a reference book on the world's warships. Sentence: 24 months. He was subsequently pardoned by President Clinton, despite CIA objection.
  • Larry Franklin (2005). Pentagon analyst charged with leaking Iran-related intelligence material to lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Sentence: 10 months at a halfway house and 100 hours of community service.

Obama Cases

  • Thomas Drake (2010). NSA whistleblower. Revealed waste at the agency in connection with the Trailblazer Project. Sentence: All espionage charges were later dropped, and Drake pled guilty to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to a year of probation. The judge called the government's conduct in the case "unconscionable."
  • Shamai Leibowitz (2010). Orthodox Jewish FBI translator, concerned about ill-considered Israeli airstrike against Iran, revealed U.S. spying against Israeli diplomats to blogger. Sentence: 20 months. Amazingly, the sentencing judge said, "I don't know what was divulged other than some documents, and how it compromised things, I have no idea."
  • Chelsea Manning (2013). Wikileaks. Sentence: 420 months (35 years). As noted, it's heaviest sentence in history, almost twenty times the pre-Obama record.
  • John Kiriakou (2013). CIA analyst and case officer. Kiriakou was the whistleblower who revealed the secret CIA torture program. Sentence: 30 months.
  • Donald Sachtleben (2013). FBI agent and contractor alleged to have disclosed to the Associated Press details of a disrupted Yemen-based bomb plot. The wildly overbroad subpoena the Justice Department sent to the AP as a follow-up made national headlines. Sentence: 43 months. Longest ever imposed in civilian court.
  • Stephen Kim (2014). State Department advisor who disclosed information about North Korea's plans to test a nuclear bomb to a Fox News reporter. The reporter was investigated by the FBI as a possible "co-conspirator" for mere act of newsgathering. Sentence: 13 months.
  • Jeffrey Sterling (case pending). Alleged to have been James Risen's source.
  • Edward Snowden (case pending). Revealed secret law allowing wholesale, covert surveillance of innocent people by the NSA. Charges against him carry decades in prison.

Wow. That's a long list. And as we're now waging a new war we are told could take years, it's a list that will only get longer.

With all due respect to the administration, this trend line should be going in the opposite direction. The modern national security state is more powerful than ever – more powerful even than during the Cold War. It demands democratic accountability. The last and best source of that accountability is a free press.

Tragically, that free press now has a 526-month sentence to serve.


© 2021 ACLU

Gabe Rottman

Gabe Rottman is a legislative counsel/policy adviser in the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office.

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