WASHINGTON — Memos and documents revealed by Freedom of Information Act requests shine light on the extreme lengths the U.S. government took to try to stop whistleblowers in the wake of Chelsea Manning’s massive leak of army reports and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.
The documents, released on Sunday by national security journalist Alexa O’Brien on her website and Twitter account, are the results of several FOIA requests pertaining to the U.S. government’s response to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents.
Manning, who served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq, gave WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified files in 2010, which the website published online. In 2013, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, which she is currently serving at a military facility at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
O’Brien’s investigation shows that every government agency that handles classified information was directed to form “mitigation teams” to examine any current security risks and try to forestall future whistleblowers.
The 2010 memo that called for these teams, written by Jacob Lew, director of the Executive Office of Management and Budget, claims that “the recent irresponsible disclosure by WikiLeaks has resulted in significant damage to our national security.”
The following year, mitigation teams were gathered under a single umbrella by an executive order which formed the Insider Threat Task Force, an anti-whistleblower team spanning multiple government departments and agencies.
At one point, the administration’s panic over its loss of control of classified material reached such a fever pitch that individual government employees reportedly faced police investigations just for visiting the WikiLeaks website. O’Brien’s FOIA requests revealed a 2012 investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a U.S. government law enforcement agency, into the conduct of a linguist stationed at Camp Dwyer, a Marine Corps base in Afghanistan.
— Alexa O'Brien (@carwinb) May 15, 2016
In a letter included in the documents, the linguist, whose name has been redacted, pleads for leniency from the investigators: “I am writing this letter to inform you that I have gone through a incident that was not my fault translating classified file in my personal computer.”
Under the heading “Wiki leaks explanation,” the linguist continues, recounting the single visit to the WikiLeaks website which landed them in hot water:
“I was in the United States that the Media was talking about wiki leaks and it was a hot topic in TV, since it was a open source I thought let’s open the web site and see what is going there, so I opened the wiki leaks website and read a few sentences and I forgot to delete the file back. That is all and that was one time.”
One of the files leaked by Manning, which has come to be known as the “Collateral Murder” video, revealed a series of airstrikes in 2007 by U.S. Army helicopters in Iraq which killed dozens of civilians, including Reuters journalists, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen.
After the deaths of Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen, the military repeatedly refused to release key details of the incident to Reuters until Manning blew the whistle on the killings. O’Brien’s FOIA requests revealed repeated attempts by Reuters to obtain information through FOIA requests. In response to one 2007 request, the U.S. government charged Reuters $352 for the privilege of obtaining information on the deaths of the company’s own employees.
Six years after Manning’s leaks and three years after her conviction, the U.S. government’s criminal investigation of WikiLeaks continues. WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, has spent the last four years living in Ecuador’s Embassy in London on asylum out of fear of extradition to the United States. In March, the U.S. government refused Manning’s FOIA request for details of the Justice Department and FBI investigations into her actions and those of her “alleged civilian co-conspirators” like Assange.
Despite the formation of the Insider Threat Task Force, government leaks have continued, including the 2013 leak of NSA files by Edward Snowden. Although the leak has not been publicly released in full, the Intercept offered expanded access to dozens of these files on Monday.
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