Americans accused of divulging secrets to the media have escaped long prison sentences, a pattern that may reassure Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who exposed the U.S. government's top-secret surveillance programs last week.
In the nine such criminal cases in U.S. history, two people served no prison time, one person was sentenced to 10 months in a halfway house and three defendants received sentences of about two years. Three cases are unresolved, including that of U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, the accused source of secret files given to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The sentences show the limited punishment that U.S. prosecutors have been able to elicit when an American is accused of passing confidential information to journalists. Six of the nine cases have been brought since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, reflecting a government-wide crackdown on unauthorised leaks.
Whistle blowers face limited punishment from US government… (image credit: abcnews)
Snowden, 29, said he is planning to seek asylum after he admitted providing secret documents to Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post showing the extent of phone and internet monitoring programs at the U.S. National Security Agency. He told the Guardian that he accepts the risk of prison but does not think he deserves punishment. “I don't think I have committed a crime outside the domain of the U.S. I think it will be clearly shown to be political in nature,” he said.
He moved to Hong Kong last month and said he was exploring seeking asylum in Iceland or elsewhere. “I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want,” he told the Guardian.
The U.S. Justice Department said it had opened a criminal investigation into the unauthorised disclosure of classified information by a person with authorised access.
Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said the investigation was in its initial stages. Asked whether prosecutors had made a determination that a crime had been committed by leaking the information to the newspapers, she declined to comment. The law in question, part of the Espionage Act originally enacted in 1917, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each criminal count.
Use of the law to prosecute leaks to the press is murky because there are so few examples, said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “We don't have a great model,” she said.
Prosecutors used the law in 1971 to charge Daniel Ellsberg, a national security analyst who passed defense documents known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. A judge dismissed the case on evidence that the government had wiretapped Ellsberg, possibly illegally.
Lawrence Franklin, a former U.S. Defense Department employee who pleaded guilty in 2005 to giving classified information about Iran to pro-Israel lobbyists, initially was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
But after the government's case against the lobbyists fell apart, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis reconsidered and imposed a new sentence of 10 months in a halfway house.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou is serving the longest prison sentence, two and a half years, out of the nine people indicted for telling secrets to the media. However, in a plea agreement with prosecutors, he was convicted under a different law for disclosing the identity of a covert agent.