October 12, 2019

US: Justice Department should end prosecution of whistleblowers

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Trump administration’s sixth deployment of the Espionage Act against an intelligence official for leaking information to the press.

Defense Intelligence Agency employee Henry Frese was arrested on two charges under the Espionage Act on Wednesday, October 9 for leaking top-secret and classified information, including details of a foreign country's weapon systems to two reporters, CNBC reported, marking the sixth time the World War I-era law has been used to prosecute a whistleblower under the Trump administration. RSF calls on the Justice Department to end the use of this law against whistleblowers, and for Congress to amend it so that those who share information with the press have an opportunity to defend their motivations.


The Espionage Act aims to protect national loyalty by allowing the US government to prosecute anyone who obtains and/or disseminates information related to national defense “to be used to the injury of the United States.” When whistleblowers are charged under the Espionage Act, they are denied the opportunity to assert in trial that they released information in the interest of the public, and not to its detriment. 


“Without whistleblowers, some of the most impactful stories of our lifetime, from the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate Scandal, would not have come to light,” said Dokhi Fassihian, the Executive Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “Each time the Espionage Act is used against a whistleblower, it chills investigative journalism and weakens press freedom.”


The crackdown against whistleblowers under this law was extremely rare until the election of President Barack Obama, whose administration prosecuted eight individuals under the Espionage Act throughout two terms. The Trump Administration has ramped up these prosecutions: this is the sixth criminal probe of a whistleblower under the Espionage Act in under three years.


According to The Intercept, one of the reporters Frese informed had published a series of stories about North Korea’s concealment of a growing nuclear program despite President Trump’s assertions that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” The Justice Department said in a statement that the release of top-secret information “could reasonably be expected to cause grave harm" to US national security. 


The US is ranked 48th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.