The US soldier imprisoned for leaking state secrets in 2010 seeks to reform laws used to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers in the name of national security
Chelsea Manning, the US soldier serving a 35-year sentence for leaking state secrets, has written a 31-page bill that would extend protections against prosecution to anyone engaging in journalism and rein in the Espionage Act that has been used by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers.
In a highly unusual move for an inmate in military custody, Manning has used her time behind bars to review existing freedom of information laws and come up with her own blueprint for how the rules should be reformed. She calls it the National Integrity and Free Speech Protection Act.
The model bill would shift the legal advantage away from government prosecutors acting in the name of “national security” and towards journalists and their sources. The proposal is significant coming from the individual who has personally felt the wrath of the US government towards official leakers more than anyone else in recent times.
The bill is an extension of a comment article that Manning wrote for the Guardian this week in which she lamented a crackdown on the part of the US government that has seen “more national security and criminal investigations into journalists and prosecutions of their sources than at any other time in the nation’s memory”. The bill takes that perceived injustice and attempts to put in place new safeguards against government overreach.
Manning was arrested in 2010 after she leaked a massive trove of US state secrets to the open information organization WikiLeaks from her post as an army intelligence analyst in Iraq. The most serious of the charges against her fell under the Espionage Act with the claim being that she had “aided the enemy”.
The military judge presiding over her trial eventually discounted that charge. But the chilling effect of the Espionage Act has remained – it has been applied in eight prosecutions brought by the Obama administration.
Manning’s bill would substantially restrict the remit of the Espionage Act. In annotations to the bill written by Manning herself, she says the government should have “to prove that the intention and motive of the accused in transmitting or communicating sensitive documents or information was to harm the government or someone else”.
Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who was herself a whistleblower in the Department of Justice, said that the Manning bill ties together law reforms intended to promote transparency and revisions to criminal laws that have been used “so aggressively and overzealously to punish whistleblowers. Manning’s experience being prosecuted under vague and overbroad laws like the Espionage Act without a public interest defense give her a unique and valuable perspective. Her efforts reveal a deep commitment to the US constitution and our democracy”.
In other sections of the bill, Manning seeks to extend protections afforded to traditional newspapers and broadcasters to the 21st century breed of digital publishers. She proposes what would in effect be a federal shield law for anyone engaged in the act of journalism, which she defines broadly to include “gathering or seeking of news or information” concerning local, national or international events.
The suggestion would widen protections to take in publishers operating on all platforms and formats, whether old world or electronic.
Though she does not mention WikiLeaks by name, her revisions would significantly extend cover the organization to which she transmitted hundreds of thousands of secret US documents including diplomatic cables and war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan. The US government has been pursuing WikiLeaks ever since it began publishing the documents in 2010, and a criminal investigation of the group and its founder Julian Assange is ongoing.
A successful prosecution in the US of WikiLeaks would depend on federal prosecutors being able to convince the courts that the digital organization stood outside the public good served by traditional journalism. Manning seeks to avoid that possibility by ensuring the definition of public-interest journalism is widened to include digital and other publishers in the modern age.
“The courts have tried to read ‘journalism’ in a narrow way to protect only traditional journalists,” said Michael Ratner, the US-based lawyer for WikiLeaks. “We think that’s an unwarranted distinction, and Chelsea Manning’s bill goes some way to address that problem.”