It seems that Americans that take the step of becoming a whistleblower are taking their chances. Under the Obama Administration, a total of eight whistleblowers/information leakers have been charged under the Espionage Act, finding themselves accused of leaking classified information.
Let's open by looking at the Espionage Act followed by a brief look at what is currently happening in Washington and how history appears to be repeating itself. The Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917 during the Woodrow Wilson presidency, a short time after the United States entered the First World War. In its original form, a finding of guilt resulted in a $10,000 fine and 20 years of imprisonment for:
1.) Disclosing information that dealt with national defence.
2.) Interfering with the recruiting of troops.
3.) Refusing to perform military service.
Notice that the original Act says nothing about "whistle blowing" by government employees.
In its original incarnation, the Act led to the arrests of hundreds of Americans including 450 conscientious objectors and others involved in the anti-war movement. During the Communist/Red scare of 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Attorney General and his assistant, one J. Edgar Hoover, made regular and ample usage of the Espionage Act and its sister Sedition Act of 1918, an amendment to the Espionage Act that covered a wider range of offences including the act of expressing an opinion that cast either the government or the war effort in a negative light, to arrest 1500 people for "disloyalty". As well, nearly 250 people were deported to Russia for their involvement in "left wing politics". Basically, as you can see, the Sedition Act functioned as a "public muzzle"; Americans were not allowed to publicly state any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States...". Under that, most bloggers, newspaper commenters and talk show hosts would find themselves behind bars!
The Espionage Act, now referred to as 18 USC Chapter 37 after it was moved from Title 50 (War) to Title 18 (Crime aka the criminal and penal code of the federal government) after World War II states the following about the disclosure of classified information:
"(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information—
(1) concerning the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the United States or any foreign government; or
(2) concerning the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device, apparatus, or appliance used or prepared or planned for use by the United States or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes; or
(3) concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or
(4) obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government, knowing the same to have been obtained by such processes—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both."
Notice that the offence occurs when the information is used to benefit a foreign nation. In the recent case of both Wikileaks and the NSA, the information released did not particularly benefit another nation directly, rather, it was used to the detriment of the United States, the Department of State and the National Security Agency.
Prior to the eight "lucky souls" who have been charged under the Espionage Act since 2009, we find three gentlemen charged with leaking information; Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower who was charged during the Nixon Administration, Samuel Morison who was charged under President Ronald Reagan for leaking satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to the British defense journal Jane's and Lawrence Franklin who was charged under President George W. Bush for passing classified documents regarding the United States policy toward Iran to the state of Israel.
Interestingly, this President that promised protection for whistleblowers has taken steps to prevent such actions. It appears that the White House is attempting to crack down on leaks using a 2011 Department of Defence program called "Insider Threat" that forces government employees in most federal departments and agencies to report suspicious behaviour of their working colleagues if it appears that these colleagues may "leak" information that could damage the government. If you want an example of how paranoia now rules supreme in Washington, here's an example from the controller of cows and hay, the United States Department of Agriculture and its online tutorial on Treason:
"Although antisocial tendencies or severe narcissism are associated with increased security risk, they do not necessarily lead to serious offenses. Three critical factors will usually have to fall into alignment before a previously trustworthy and loyal employee commits a serious crime.
First, there must be a personality or character weakness, such as antisocial tendencies or narcissism, that causes a predisposition to maladjusted, counterproductive behavior.
Second, a personal, financial, or career crisis puts an individual with these weaknesses under great stress, triggering more obvious counterproductive behavior often observable by friends, coworkers, or supervisor.
Third, the friends, coworkers, and supervisor fail to recognize the signs of a serious problem, decide they don't want to get involved, or assume that someone else will take care of it. As a result, no one intervenes to help resolve the problem, and the individual's behavior spirals out of control.
I don't know about you, but I suspect that there are many Americans that, since 2007, would consider themselves to be in a situation of "financial crisis" as they've watched the value of their home plummet and the value of their assets crash and statistically, it is likely that some of those are antisocial or narcissistic. Fortunately, it doesn't mean that they are all spies. Unfortunately, in the current environment, it means that they are under Washington's finely ground magnifying glass.
If you look back at what happened to hundreds of Americans when the Espionage and Sedition Acts were first passed in the early twentieth century and compare it to what is happening today in Washington, it certainly appears that history is repeating itself, doesn’t it? Paranoia appears to be reigning yet again in the hallowed halls of D.C.