March 30, 2018 - Updated on June 26, 2018

US – Justice Department prosecutes former FBI whistleblower under Espionage Act

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned to learn that the United States Department of Justice has charged a former FBI agent for allegedly leaking classified information to a reporter. This is the second whistleblower charged under the Espionage Act since President Donald J. Trump took office.

On Tuesday, March 27, the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted Terry Albury, a former FBI agent in Minnesota, under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking classified information to a national news reporter, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Albury was charged with two counts related to the unauthorized disclosure and retention of national security information. While the federal search warrants didn’t identify the news outlet Albury was suspected of leaking to, the Star-Tribune linked Albury’s charges to a series published in The Intercept in 2017 regarding a set of secret FBI guidelines for assessing confidential informants.

“The use of the Espionage Act to criminalize blowing the whistle as if it were tantamount to spying is very concerning,” said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Leaks are the lifeblood of investigative journalism and the US government’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers for espionage has direct repercussions for press freedom.”

Albury’s attorneys said in a March 28 statement that he accepts full responsibility for his actions, adding that “as the only African-American FBI field agent in Minnesota, Mr. Albury’s actions were driven by a conscientious commitment to long-term national security and addressing the well-documented systemic biases within the FBI.”

This is not the first whistleblower to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act during President Trump’s tenure. In June 2017, the DOJ charged former NSA contractor Reality Winner for gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information, following the publication of a story in The Intercept that featured a leaked NSA document showing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Albury’s charges come less than a year after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his plans to crackdown on whistleblowers. At an August 2017 press conference, Sessions said the Justice Department more than tripled its number of leak prosecutions compared with the number of investigations that were open at the end of the previous administration. In the following months, Sessions repeatedly failed to guarantee protections for journalists safeguarding their sources and said he would use the Constitution to prioritize national security over journalist protections.

The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.