What if Spc. Manning had gone to a lawyer instead of to Wikileaks?

The trial in Specialist Bradley Manning’s court martial began this week, and I am in pain as I think about how different his case might be if he had consulted with an experienced whistleblower lawyer before he made his disclosures to Wikileaks.  Could a lawyer have saved him from facing a life sentence? Could his concerns about excessive violence in Iraq have had more impact if he had made his disclosures through different channels?
Consider the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, 10 U.S.C. § 1034. In Section (a)(1), this Act states, “No person may restrict a member of the armed forces in communicating with a Member of Congress or an Inspector General.” Section (a)(2) adds this proviso, “Paragraph (1) does not apply to a communication that is unlawful.” While the extent to which the law protects disclosures of classified information to members of Congress has yet to be fully developed, a lawyer can help military personnel assess the risks and benefits of making disclosures to particular members of Congress. Incidentally, this same law specifically protects disclosures of “sexual harassment or unlawful discrimination.”
Consider further the Lloyd–La Follette Act,  5 U.S.C. § 7211.  This law states in its entirety, “The right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied.” Congress passed this law in 1912 after postal officials retaliated against workers who disclosed unsanitary conditions in Chicago postal buildings.  The law contains no exceptions for classified information.
Combined, one must wonder what, if any, disclosures to members of Congress could be unlawful. Ordinarily, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act would also protect subsequent disclosures of a service member’s letter to Congress. It would take the unusually courageous whistleblower to test whether this doctrine would apply to classified information.  However, redistribution of one’s letter to Congress would not be necessary if a member of Congress chose to share that information on the floor of the House or Senate.  Members of Congress enjoy Constitutional protection for their “Speech and Debate.”
Obviously, the concerns that whistleblowers have about retaliation could be alleviated with better whistleblower protection laws.  If service members trusted their Inspectors General to protect them from reprisals, then fewer would feel compelled to make leaks to the media.  Civilian personnel now have significantly improved rights under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) passed last December.  Even civilian employees with security clearances can bring their discrimination and retaliation cases to jury trials under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Would we see the current level of controversy over protecting victims of sexual assault if service members had these same rights? To the extent that our laws and institutions give potential whistleblowers confidence that they can raise their concerns without reprisal, and have them properly and timely addressed, those potential whistleblowers will be more likely to pursue the official channels instead of going to the media.
There is no guarantee that Spc. Manning could have avoided prosecution by obtaining expert legal advise on how to make his disclosures.  Indeed, the present administration has shown an unprecedented willingness to pursue criminal prosecution of national security whistleblowers.  See, for example, Prof. Richard Moberly’s article, Whistleblowers and the Obama Presidency: The National Security Dilemma, Emp. Rts. & Emp. Policy J., Vol. 16 (2012). Still, the legal defenses available to Spc. Manning could have been greatly enhanced if he had trusted a lawyer instead of internet hackers with his trove of information and concerns.


For more information, please check out Security Clearance Law and Procedure by KCNF partners Elaine Fitch & Mary Kuntz.