Leaking secret documents for the purpose of informing the public is controversial, no doubt about it. Those who do it are considered heroes by some, perceived to be dragging unsavory secrets into the sunlight so citizens know about them and can demand change. Others consider leakers to be villains who expose legitimately secret, embarrassing and even damaging information out where our enemies can take advantage of it.
Whatever you may think about those responsible for the leaks, there is a strong argument for holding them criminally responsible, especially if they agreed to keep those secrets as a condition of their jobs. The argument is much weaker for trying to hold journalists criminally responsible for publishing leaked information.
Yes, it’s true that leaks wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the public forum provided by journalists. Yet many times, journalists’ publication of the information has revealed serious wrongdoing that Americans were glad to know about. Consider the Pentagon Papers scandal or Watergate — no one today seriously argues that we would have been better off had those scandals remained behind closed doors.
So we come to WikiLeaks. As you may recall, former Pfc. Chelsea Manning took hundreds of thousands of secret military documents and forwarded them to WikiLeaks for exposure. She was prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned, while no one from WikiLeaks was even charged.
The Obama Administration considered filing charges. It even sought extradition of the group’s editor in chief, Julian Assange. Ultimately, however, it decided that prosecuting Assange or his colleagues was too threatening to press freedom, which is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
The Trump Administration appears to disagree.
“Prosecuting WikiLeaks would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations,” Tweeted the ACLU recently, when it was announced that the Justice Department was considering charges against the group.
If Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides to charge members of the group, they could be facing charges of theft of government property, conspiracy, and violating the Espionage Act for releasing secret information about the CIA’s cyber capacity.
Donald Trump famously praised WikiLeaks during the campaign when leaked Clinton emails worked in his favor. “I love WikiLeaks,” he said at a rally. “It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the Internet.”