Classified information leaks from the federal government all the time. Sometimes it is strategically leaked by the White House. Other times, as when the identity of a CIA agent was inadvertently included in an official government release, the breach is accidental. National-security leaks come from members of Congress too. The powerful people behind these disclosures almost never face consequences. But when an employee of the national-security state starts to speak out about information that higher-ups don't want revealed, even when it poses no threat to national security, the U.S. government has amassed a troubling record of calling on the FBI to intimidate and harass the relevant party, sending a message to all.
Consider the similar experience of Thomas Drake. The Economist published a useful summary of his case in 2011:
Mr Drake, a former executive at the National Security Agency, was probed by investigators looking into the warrantless wiretapping leak, but they couldn't pin that misdeed on him. At the time, though, he admitted to talking to a reporter (an unauthorised act, but not illegal) and the Pentagon's inspector-general about problems at the NSA. So instead of charging him for the leak, they accused him of retaining in his personal files five classified documents... Three of the documents that could land Mr Drake in jail were copies of material he had submitted to the inspector-general in a complaint about a surveillance programme described by others as a "wasteful failure". The programme in question was abandoned in 2006 after eating up $1.2 billion. (Ms Mayer helpfully notes that the inspector general's website tells complainants to keep copies of their documents.) One of the other documents under scrutiny is a schedule of meetings marked "unclassified/for official use only". Prosecutors say the paper should've been secret and that Mr Drake should've known it should've been secret. The final document was declassified three months after Mr Drake's indictment.
Let's again put Mr Drake's actions in context. John Deutch, the former CIA director, Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney-general, and Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser, were all accused of similarly mishandling classified material. None of them received more than a slap on the wrist for their actions. (Mr Berger, who pled guilty to a misdemeanour charge, received the harshest punishment: two years probation. In one of the many ironies of this story, Mr Berger's defence lawyer was Lanny Breuer, who is now heading up the Drake prosecution.) Far from being an enemy of the state, Mr Drake appears to be a whistleblower who rubbed some people the wrong way. He complained to the inspector general and he spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter about waste, mismanagment and illegalities at the NSA. For that he expected to lose his job. But, he maintains, he did not leak classified information, and he is not accused of such.
Peter Van Buren added some context at Mother Jones, summing up the Obama administration's shameful and zealous persecution of whistleblowers in government:
The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.
Obama's zeal in silencing leaks that don't make him look like a superhero extends beyond the deployment of the Espionage Act into a complex legal tangle of retaliatory practices, life-destroying threats, on-the-job harassment, and firings. Lots of firings.
Van Buren had a personal stake in the phenomenon:
The Department of State is in the process of firing me, seeking to make me the first person to suffer any sanction over the WikiLeaks disclosures. It's been a backdoor way of retaliating for my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, which was an honest account of State's waste and mismanagement in the "reconstruction" of Iraq. Unlike Bradley Manning, on trial under the Espionage Act for allegedly dumping a quarter million classified documents onto the Internet, my fireable offense was linking to just one of them at my blog. Just a link, mind you, not a leak. The document, still unconfirmed as authentic by the State Department even as they seek to force me out over it, is on the web and available to anyone with a mouse, from Kabul to Tehran to Des Moines. That document was discussed in several newspaper articles before—and after—I "disclosed" it with my link. It was a document that admittedly did make the US government look dumb, and that was evidently reason enough for the State Department to suspend my security clearance and seek to fire me, even after the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Go ahead and click on a link yourself and commit what State now considers a crime.
There is also the case of William Binney, an NSA whistleblower who tried to complain through official government channels, as Edward Snowden's critics say he should have done. It didn't work:
We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally because no one in Congress or—we couldn't get anybody in the courts, and certainly the Department of Justice and inspector general's office didn't pay any attention to it. And all of the efforts we made just produced no change whatsoever. All it did was continue to get worse and expand.
His lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, who also represents two other NSA whistleblowers, added that they weren't just ignored. "Not only did they go through multiple and all the proper internal channels and they failed, but more than that, it was turned against them," she explained. "The inspector general was the one who gave their names to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act."