On July 27, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) reintroduced the Espionage Act Reform Act, which would increase protections for journalists and expand options for whistleblowers to make disclosures.
The Act “mirrors the original legislation introduced in 2020, but with bipartisan support,” according to the press release. Among other things, the Act “[p]rotects journalists who solicit, obtain, or publish government secrets from prosecution” and “[e]nsures that each member of Congress is equally able to receive classified information, including from whistleblowers.”
The press release explains that the Espionage Act as it stands today “criminalized the disclosure to Congress of classified information related to intercepted communications, unless it is in response to a ‘lawful demand’ from a committee. This puts members in the minority party and those not chairing any committee at a significant disadvantage.”
“Journalists should never be prosecuted by the government for what they publish. Especially when politicians abuse the law to keep the public in the dark about misconduct or abuse,” Wyden said in the press release. “The Espionage Act currently provides the executive branch with sweeping powers that are ripe for abuse to target journalists and whistleblowers who reveal information some officials would rather keep secret. This bill ensures only personnel with security clearances can be prosecuted for improperly revealing classified information and that whistleblowers can reveal classified abuses directly to Congress, federal regulators, and oversight bodies,” Wyden explained.
The Espionage Act and Whistleblowers
Whistleblower advocates have long decried the use of the Espionage Act to harshly punish whistleblowers. During the Obama administration, eight whistleblowers were sentenced under the Espionage Act, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, according to an NPR article. Under former President Trump, three people were indicted under the Act, including Winner. Drone warfare whistleblower Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for violating the Espionage Act, garnering support and an urge for a pardon from Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner was sentenced to 63 months in prison and three years of supervised release for violating the Espionage Act. Winner’s is the longest sentence handed down for a civilian charged with leaking information to the press. While working for the NSA as a cryptologic linguist in 2017, “Winner came across a document containing information about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, which was being investigated at the time,” according to prior WNN reporting. She “anonymously sent the top-secret document to news outlet The Intercept, which published the document and a story on June 5, 2017. However, the government was able to track the identity of the person who printed out the document, and Winner was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act. WNN has covered Winner’s prison term, release from prison, and her first public appearance since her imprisonment.