The Obama administration, which famously pledged to be the most transparent in American history, is pursuing an unexpectedly aggressive legal offensive against federal workers who leak secret information to expose wrongdoing, highlight national security threats or pursue a personal agenda.
In just over two years since President Barack Obama took office, prosecutors have filed criminal charges in five separate cases involving unauthorized distribution of classified national security information to the media. And the government is now mulling what would be the most high-profile case of them all – prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
That’s a sharp break from recent history, when the U.S. government brought such cases on three occasions in roughly 40 years.
The government insists it’s only pursuing individuals who act with reckless disregard for national security, and that it has an obligation to protect the nation’s most sensitive secrets from being revealed. Anyone seeking to expose malfeasance has ample opportunity to do so through proper channels, government lawyers say.
But legal experts and good-government advocates say the hard-line approach to leaks has a chilling effect on whistleblowers, who fear harsh legal reprisals if they dare to speak up.
Not only that, these advocates say, it runs counter to Obama’s pledges of openness by making it a crime to shine a light on the inner workings of government – especially when there are measures that could protect the nation’s interests without hauling journalists into court and government officials off to jail.
“It is not to me a good sign when government chooses to go after leakers using the full force of criminal law when there are other ways to handle these situations,” said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota law professor and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Of course, the government has to have some kind of remedy, [but] I’d certainly hope they’re being very selective about these prosecutions.”