The Obama administration is using a century-old anti-spying law to prosecute federal workers for leaking secrets to the media, drawing criticism that the law is draconian and the prosecutions are chilling efforts to report news.
He is accused of telling reporters the names and classified details about the service of two CIA colleagues with knowledge of the agency’s practice of waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning that the Red Cross says is torture. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
“These six individuals are not spies, and they are not traitors. They are news sources,” said Steven Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“They are all whistle-blowers, who because they work in the national security and intelligence field, are not protected” by the whistle-blowing law, said Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Individuals in other agencies who come across lawbreaking, waste or fraud are protected by law and have special channels for making disclosures about the abuse, she said.
“Whistle-blowers who work in national security or intelligence do not have a place to go,” she said, adding that they are driven to using the media by the few other options to expose wrongdoing.
The repeated use of a broad, draconian measure like the Espionage Act also is having a chilling effect on news organizations’ ability to do their job, Mr. Aftergood said.
“These prosecutions will have grave consequences, not just for the individuals concerned, but for the quality of information Americans receive in the news, especially about national security matters,” he said.
Two of those prosecuted under the Espionage Act have pleaded guilty. The other four cases are pending, including that of Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, who is awaiting a decision on whether he will be court-martialed on charges of giving classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The case of Steven Kim, a former State Department contractor, is at a pretrial stage and is not expected to be heard before September, according to court documents.
The case of Jeffrey A. Sterling, another former CIA official accused of leaking to a reporter, is on hold while prosecutors appeal several of the judge’s pretrial rulings.
Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency executive, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving no allegations of leaking classified information after facing 35 years in prison if convicted on charges under the Espionage Act.
“They pile on the charges, hoping you will cave in and plead out,” Mr. Drake told The Washington Times.
“He exposed what we can only call torture,” he added of Mr. Kiriakou.