A US air force systems analyst who expressed support for WikiLeaks and accused leaker Bradley Manning triggered a formal military investigation last year to determine whether she herself had leaked any documents to the group. Air Force investigative documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the analyst was repeatedly interviewed about her contacts with and support for WikiLeaks – what investigators repeatedly refer to as the “anti-US or anti-military group” – as well as her support for the group’s founder, Julian Assange.
The investigation was ultimately closed when they could find no evidence of unauthorized leaking, but what makes these documents noteworthy is the possible crime cited by military officials as the one they were investigating: namely, “Communicating With the Enemy”, under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
That is one of the most serious crimes a person can commit – it carries the penalty of death – and is committed when a person engages in “unauthorized communication, correspondence, or intercourse with the enemy”. The military investigation form also requires investigators to identify the “victim” of the crime they are investigating, and here, they designated “society” as the victim:
How could leaking to WikiLeaks possibly constitute the crime of “communicating with the enemy”? Who exactly is the “enemy”? There are two possible answers to that question, both quite disturbing.
The first possibility is the one suggested by today’s Sydney Morning Herald article on these documents (as well as by WikiLeaks itself): that the US military now formally characterizes WikiLeaks and Assange as an “enemy”, the same designation it gives to groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This would not be the first time such sentiments were expressed by the US military: recall that one of the earliest leaks from the then-largely-unknown group was a secret report prepared back in 2008 by the US Army which, as the New York Times put it, included WikiLeaks on the Pentagon’s “list of the enemies threatening the security of the United States”. That Army document then plotted how to destroy the group.
But it’s the second possibility that seems to me to be the far more likely one: namely, that the US government, as part of Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers, has now fully embraced the pernicious theory that any leaks of classified information can constitute the crime of “aiding the enemy” or “communicating with the enemy” by virtue of the fact that, indirectly, “the enemy” will – like everyone else in the world – ultimately learn of what is disclosed.
Indeed, the US military is currently prosecuting accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning on multiple charges including “aiding the enemy”, also under Article 104 of the UCMJ, and a capital offense (though prosecutors are requesting “only” life imprisonment rather than execution). Military prosecutors have since revealed that their theory is that the 23-year-old Army Private “aided al-Qaida by leaking hundreds of thousands of military and other government documents” — specifically, that “Manning indirectly aided al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula by giving information to WikiLeaks.”
It seems clear that the US military now deems any leaks of classified information to constitute the capital offense of “aiding the enemy” or “communicating with the enemy” even if no information is passed directly to the “enemy” and there is no intent to aid or communicate with them. Merely informing the public about classified government activities now constitutes this capital crime because it “indirectly” informs the enemy.
The implications of this theory are as obvious as they are disturbing. If someone can be charged with “aiding” or “communicating with the enemy” by virtue of leaking to WikiLeaks, then why wouldn’t that same crime be committed by someone leaking classified information to any outlet: the New York Times, the Guardian, ABC News or anyone else? In other words, does this theory not inevitably and necessarily make all leaking of all classified information – whether to WikiLeaks or any media outlet – a capital offense: treason or a related crime?
International Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller made a similar point when the charges against Manning were first revealed:
“[I]f Manning has aided the enemy, so has any media organization that published the information he allegedly stole. Nothing in Article 104 requires proof that the defendant illegally acquired the information that aided the enemy. As a result, if the mere act of ensuring that harmful information is published on the internet qualifies either as indirectly ‘giving intelligence to the enemy’ (if the military can prove an enemy actually accessed the information) or as indirectly ‘communicating with the enemy’ (because any reasonable person knows that enemies can access information on the internet), there is no relevant factual difference between Manning and a media organization that published the relevant information.”
Professor Heller goes on to note that while “WikiLeaks or the New York Times could not actually be charged under Article 104” because “the UCMJ only applies to soldiers”, there is nonetheless “still something profoundly disturbing about the prospect of convicting Manning and sentencing him to life imprisonment for doing exactly what media organizations did, as well”.
What these new documents reveal is that this odious theory is not confined to Manning. The US military appears to be treating all potential leaks – at least those to WikiLeaks – as “aiding” or “communicating with” the enemy. But there is no possible limiting principle that would confine that theory only to such leaks; they would necessarily apply to all leaks of classified information to any media outlets.
It is always worth underscoring that the New York Times has published far more government secrets than WikiLeaks ever has, and more importantly, has published far more sensitive secrets than WikiLeaks has (unlike WikiLeaks, which has never published anything that was designated “Top Secret”, the New York Times has repeatedly done so: the Pentagon Papers, the Bush NSA wiretapping program, the SWIFT banking surveillance system, and the cyberwarfare program aimed at Iran were all “Top Secret” when the newspaper revealed them, as was the network of CIA secret prisons exposed by the Washington Post). There is simply no way to convert basic leaks to WikiLeaks into capital offenses – as the Obama administration is plainly doing – without sweeping up all leaks into that attack.
Of course, that outcome would almost certainly be a feature, not a bug, for Obama officials. This is, after all, the same administration that has prosecuted whistleblowers under espionage charges that threatened to send them to prison for life without any evidence of harm to national security, and has brought double the number of such prosecutions as all prior administrations combined. Converting all leaks into capital offenses would be perfectly consistent with the unprecedented secrecy fixation on the part of the Most Transparent Administration Ever™.
The irony from these developments is glaring. The real “enemies” of American “society” are not those who seek to inform the American people about the bad acts engaged in by their government in secret. As Democrats once recognized prior to the age of Obama – in the age of Daniel Ellsberg – people who do that are more aptly referred to as “heroes”. The actual “enemies” are those who abuse secrecy powers to conceal government actions and to threaten with life imprisonment or even execution those who blow the whistle on high-level wrongdoing.
This article originally appeared on the Guardian UK.