Leaks are more than fodder for congressional debate and presidential tweets – leaks of classified information remain an ongoing and growing problem, with the number of criminal reports related to the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information surging over the past two years, according to a release from the Department of Justice which was recently obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.
The Department of Justice fielded 120 leak referrals in 2017, and 88 in 2018. For calendar years 2009 through 2015, the highest number of leaks reported was 55, and the average was 39.
The uptick in leak cases doesn’t necessarily mean more leaks are happening today than before, but it does shine a light on the reality of the Department of Justice’s battle to enforce criminal prosecutions against leaks. The figures obtained by the Federation of American Scientists only reveal leaks of classified information subject to criminal prosecutions – not leaks that weren’t referred for criminal prosecution, and which may have been handled administratively. The figures also don’t break down the leaks by agency.
What’s the Penalty for Leaking Classified Information?
Even leak cases resulting in criminal convictions generally receive relatively minor consequences. Chelsea Manning, who leaked 750,000 classified and sensitive documents, plead guilty to 10 charges and was convicted in trial of a total of 17 charges, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She served just 7 years before having her sentence commuted by President Obama.
Manning is a rare example of a leaks case that actually went to trial. Few cases do. Most are resolved through plea arrangements. Whether that’s due to the government’s desire to preserve secrecy or the need for expediency, it remains that leaking classified information generally results in a punishment that is far from fitting the crime. Harold Martin recently accepted a plea agreement with a nine year prison sentence – after 20 years of hoarding classified information amassing more than 50 terabytes of classified information. Reality Winner brazenly walked out of her office with classified material stuffed into her pantyhose, and walked away with a 63 month prison sentence.
The number of criminal prosecutions for leakers only scratches the surface of those who disclose government secrets. Some hide under the umbrella of whistleblowing, in other cases the government is just uninterested or perhaps unable to move the case to prosecution. When it comes to whistleblower cases, it’s important to remember that just as there are official protections for whistleblowers under the law, there are also procedures for properly reporting information. Revealing classified or sensitive information to anyone without a clearance or the authorization to receive it (example: the media) is not whistleblowing – it’s leaking. Why does that matter? As security clearance attorney and ClearanceJobs contributor Sean Bigley pointed out, “Once classified information is placed into the public domain, the damage to U.S. national security is impossible to roll back.”
For those with the right attitude toward national security, that knowledge – not the slap on the hand criminal repercussions – should be enough to stop leaking information, and start following the correct procedures for handling classified information.