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23 Oct, 2019 20:01

‘Whoa,’ tweets Snowden, as Bernie Sanders says he would not prosecute government whistleblowers under Espionage Act

‘Whoa,’ tweets Snowden, as Bernie Sanders says he would not prosecute government whistleblowers under Espionage Act

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has said that he would not use the Espionage Act to prosecute government whistleblowers in a promise hailed by activists as crucial to maintaining press freedom.

The controversial 1917 law was rarely used in modern times until former US President Barack Obama dug it up to prosecute eight people accused of leaking to the media — more than all other US presidents combined. So far, Donald Trump has also used the law to prosecute eight whistleblowers, putting him on track to outdo Obama if he wins a second term in 2020.

“Whoa,” tweeted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in response. Snowden was himself charged under the Espionage Act for his major disclosures on mass surveillance by the US government.

Sanders made the comments in an interview with the Intercept released on Tuesday. Asked whether it was right to prosecute whistleblowers using the law, Sander said, “Of course not.” He added that whistleblowers “have a very important role to play in the political process.”

The Espionage Act was originally used to go after conscientious objectors in World War I — and the fact that the law considers leakers to be spies “makes a fair trial impossible” since “relevant evidence is classified and kept from the defense,” the Intercept wrote.

“This is the most important stance any candidate has taken affecting press freedom so far,” tweeted Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Strangely, however, the Intercept reporter did not ask Sanders specifically about Julian Assange, who is awaiting a US extradition hearing in a British prison for exposing US war crimes in Iraq — and whose case is the most prominent and consequential example of the Espionage Act being used to quash whistleblowers and freedom of information.

Instead the interviewer focused on the ‘Ukrainegate’ whistleblower, whose complaint about a call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prompted an impeachment inquiry — and Reality Winner, the former NSA contractor who was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking classified information on alleged Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 election. 

Ironically, many in the US establishment have been quick to express support for whistleblowers if they are revealing information that is damaging to Trump, but not so enthusiastic about defending Assange, who released information damaging to Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Sanders himself previously condemned the use of the Espionage Act against Assange, calling it “a disturbing attack on the First Amendment” — although the Vermont senator angered many when he did not make a statement after Assange was initially arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in April.

Sanders’ later defense of Assange stood in stark contrast to that of Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren, who condemned the Trump administration's move but also called Assange a “bad actor” who “should be held accountable.” By far the candidate who has been most vocal in support of Assange, however, has been rogue Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, who said the message his prosecution sends to Americans is that they must “be quiet” and “toe the line” otherwise “there will be consequences.”

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