Under the current presidential administration, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has brought espionage prosecutions against more people for alleged mishandling of classified information than all previous administrations combined, a New York conference was told Friday.
“I think this war on whistleblowers, this war on journalists, and this war on hacktivists is really a war for [control of] information,” human rights attorney Jesselyn Redack said at the 10th biennial Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE X) conference.
Redack, a former whistleblower herself, who now represents many of the country's most infamous spillers of government secrets, cited the dogged pursuit by the DOJ of intelligence and military whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, hackers like Barrett Brown, and journalists like James Risen.
Such efforts are emblematic of the determined efforts of President Barack Obama's administration to make examples of those who reveal uncomfortable government secrets, she said.
So far, she noted, the government has launched eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act since Obama took office in 2008. Prior to Obama's presidency, there had been just three Espionage Act cases against government officials accused of providing classified information to the media.
“The work of the government is supposed to be public, and our personal lives are supposed to be private, but that's inverted now,” Redack said, setting the tone for what is expected to be a sustained counterattack this weekend from the hundreds of freedom of speech activists and computer specialists attending the three-day event.
One of the conference highlights, scheduled for Saturday, is a discussion between Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who in 1971 leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times. Snowden is expected to appear by video connection from Moscow, where he is currently granted asylum.
The weekend conference, sponsored by 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, will also feature panels and workshops on Internet security, hacking and tools for disseminating information.
National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake, who was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information about domestic mass surveillance programs, told the attendees his own legal ordeal began after he revealed to a Baltimore Sun reporter non-classified information about an NSA program intended to track entities using their cell phones and e-mail.
“You don't expose government criminality … without them responding to it,” Drake said.
The response was 10 charges, brought in April 2010, related to espionage, obstructing justice and fraud.
Initially he faced decades in prison. But in June 2011, soon after a “60 Minutes” segment questioned “overcharging” in the case, the government dropped all charges. Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of exceeding authorized use of a computer.
While Drake avoided having to serve time in prison, he lost his job and spent over $150,000 on his defense.
“It was crystal clear that what I had discovered in terms of government criminology, massive fraud and abuse, and public endangerment, deserved to be brought to the public,” Drake said.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.