Bradley Manning verdict reminds us that the Espionage Act of 1917 must be changed

Ever since  Bradley Manning’s identity became known, and certainly  before it, there has been a dynamic interplay between the definition of the whistleblower and the spy. How could an act written in 1917 possibly address or, rather, handle the complexity of a whistleblower of Manning’s scale and intent? The fact is that the Espionage Act of 1917 was never written with Bradley Manning in mind. Its goal was not to address whistleblowing at all, but the delivery of intelligence to foreign governments.

We must keep this in mind today as Manning was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, but found guilty of over a dozen other violations, including five related to the Espionage Act.

Now, it is one thing to create the legal mechanism to prosecute spies who deliver information to the enemy. But it is quite another to prosecute a soldier, or any American for that matter (journalists, for instance) for publishing documents that shine a light on shameful deeds. Manning wasn’t paid for his work by any foreign nation or agent. He wasn’t working on anyone’s behalf apart from his countrymen.

All of this is to say that the Espionage Act needs to be amended to make room for whistleblowers. Because, as it stands, any whistleblower is at the mercy of the law, and the President’s particular whistleblower policies.

Take Obama, for instance. His Justice Department has charged seven people  (including Edward Snowden) with violating the Espionage Act for simply leaking information to the press. More cases in five years than George W. Bush managed to accumulate in his eight years in office. This from the man who heralded whistleblowers. Now, as the Sunlight Foundation recently pointed out, the Obama administration took the shady route of removing from his website any mention of the president’s 2008 call for whistleblower protections.

The following disappeared from the website two days after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks started trickling out:

Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.

The Department of Defense is nothing if not a federal agency. So, by Obama’s definition, Manning exposed abuse and was “committed to public integrity and willing to speak out.” Manning is certainly courageous in risking a life sentence in military prison. After Manning and Snowden, perhaps President Obama excluded all defense and intelligence employees and contractors from his whistleblower protection rhetoric..

How then to best alter the Espionage Act and make room for the Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens of the world—individuals who risk their freedom to give Americans and the world some truth? Well, we can start by having a very healthy, public debate on the subject. People could email and call their representatives and senators, demanding that they address the issue. There have been massive internet-led efforts against SOPA, PIPA, and now the NSA’s PRISM program. Could there not be a similar, coordinated effort to once and for all protect American whistleblowers?

As it stands now after the Manning verdict, the American government views whistleblowers as spies. And this will have a very direct affect on how vital information about government policies, both here and abroad, makes its way to the American people. This is not only shameful, but highly dangerous.