Feds pushed administrative punishment for leakers

Feds pushed administrative punishment for leakers
© Getty Images

The Obama administration has given orders to pursue administrative punishments against leakers rather than criminal indictments in some cases, indicating that the government’s efforts to quiet leakers may have been more complex than previously understood.

The administration has been criticized by transparency groups for its record on government leakers, and the fact that President Obama’s Justice Department has pursued more charges under the Espionage Act than all of his predecessors combined.

ADVERTISEMENT

But it also appears to have aggressively pursued administrative penalties against leakers, according to a newly unearthed document published on Tuesday.

Late in the president’s first term, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper issued a directive telling federal agencies to “pursue administrative investigations and sanctions against identified leakers wherever appropriate,” rather than going through the potentially perilous and drawn-out process of a court proceeding, Clapper’s top lawyer said in a secret statement before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“By advocating for administrative action in appropriate cases, the DNI hopes that more leakers will be sanctioned, and others similarly situated will be deterred,” general counsel Robert Litt told the Senate panel in February 2012, describing the May 2011 memorandum.

The statement sheds new light on the administration’s efforts to combat the spread of official secrets, two years before Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of U.S. surveillance. The document was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy through the Freedom of Information Act.

It remains unclear how many — if any — federal workers were subjected to administrative penalties for leaking classified information. The punishments could include loss of security clearance, fines or firing, according to the Federation of American Scientists' project.  

Under Obama, seven people have faced charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, three more than under all other presidents combined. The data point is frequently cited by critics of the White House who claim that the current administration is exceptionally harsh on government secrecy.

“This administration has been historically active in pursuing prosecution of leakers, and the intelligence community fully supports this effort,” Litt wrote in the 2012 statement.

However, pursuit of those cases “is often beset with complications,” he added, “including difficult problems of identifying the leaker, the potential for confirming or revealing even more classified information in a public trial and graymail by the defense.

“And looming over this entire process is an inherent tension between protecting secrecy and fundamental constitutional guarantees of free speech and a fair trial.”

In addition to pushing administrative sanctions against leakers, Litt also claimed that the administration was working on rooting out “insider threats” who might want to leak secrets as well as creating “automated systems” that could help detect when classified information is published on the internet.