Domestic Entities

The War on Whistleblowers: A Lesson in Policymaking

In May 2019, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging 18 counts of violating a World War I-era law intended to punish spies called the Espionage Act.

The defendant wasn’t a spy or someone who sold military secrets for a profit to a country at war with the United States. It was a journalist; Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.

When Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, he declared its primary objective would be to publish information the rich and powerful would prefer to keep secret. And Assange made good on his promise. In 2007, WikiLeaks released a secret manual written for prison guards at the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among other revelations, the manual outlined the rules for permissible types of torture to be used against detainees.

Three years later, in 2010, WikiLeaks published top-secret materials supplied by Army intelligence analyst Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. One of more explosive disclosures was that at least 66,000 civilians had been killed by US forces in Iraq.

American politicians and pundits were quick to condemn Assange and WikiLeaks. Former Republican Congressman Paul Ryan called Assange “a sycophant for Russia.” Former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook, “He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”

Assange likely sealed his fate when WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee shortly before the 2016 presidential election, which Hillary Clinton lost. By then, Assange had taken refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy after his application for political asylum had been granted.

But in 2019, following the approval of a $4.2 billion loan package to Ecuador by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the embassy invited in UK police to arrest Assange. (Not coincidentally, the US is the largest shareholder in the IMF.) Assange was held pending review of a longstanding US request for his extradition.

Last month, Assange lost what could be his final appeal to stave off extradition to face charges that lead to a sentence of up to 175 years in federal prison. Prosecutors accuse Assange of acting as the equivalent of a spy by releasing embarrassing facts about US actions in Cuba, Afghanistan, and Iraq. But while the indictment alleges that Assange’s actions “risked serious harm to US national security,” a report from the Australian Defense Taskforce concluded that the disclosures “did not cause any real harm to US interests.”

In other words, the indictment has nothing to do with holding Assange accountable for his alleged crimes. Its real purpose is to show anyone who might be inclined to publish embarrassing facts about Uncle Sam what could happen if they do.

There are times, however, when whistleblowing is tolerated, or at least punished less severely than it would otherwise. A case in point is former FinCEN analyst Mayflower Sours Edwards, who released more than 50,000 Suspicious Activities Reports (SAR) to Buzzfeed News.

The revelations, which showed that US megabanks were servicing some of the world’s most prolific money launderers, weren’t a surprise to us. We’ve written for years that America’s war on money laundering is a farce in which innocent victims guilty of nothing more than trying to protect their financial privacy are treated far more severely than megabanks laundering billions of dollars for narcotics kingpins and terrorists.

Partially as a result of Edwards’ revelations, Congress included several anti-money laundering provisions in its defense spending bill approved in late 2020, including a beneficial ownership registry that will force the ultimate beneficial owners of corporations, LLCs, and other entities to register with the Treasury Department. Since establishment of a beneficial ownership registry has been a longstanding goal for the FBI, we weren’t terribly surprised that Edwards received only a six-month prison sentence for leaking the documents.

Once you understand the threat whistleblowers pose to the status quo, it’s easier to understand why politicians of every ideological persuasion have lined up to stop them in their tracks. It’s why the Obama administration referred 316 whistleblowing cases to the Justice Department for investigation under the Espionage Act and the Trump administration made 334 such referrals. And we have every expectation the Biden administration will follow the same pattern.

In the meantime, every American should thank Julian Assange for revealing the truth about the brutal methods Uncle Sam uses to fight its secret wars. He deserves commendation – not a lifetime prison sentence.

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