By the standards of other countries, the U.S. approach to official secrecy is ferocious.
For leaking hugely newsworthy information to the press, ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who’s beseeching a score of countries for asylum, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier being tried by a military court in Maryland, face charges of espionage. They could go to prison for life.
Elsewhere, punishment for making official secrets public is less severe than the penalties here for driving drunk: at worst, two years in Britain and Denmark. In other Western countries, maximum punishments range from four years in Sweden and Spain, to five in Germany, Belgium and Poland, and seven in France.
That’s according to an analysis of 20 European countries by Sandra Coliver, a legal expert with the Open Society Justice Initiative. Her group has been leading a multiyear, international effort to formulate broad principles reconciling the legitimate need to keep government secrets with the no less legitimate need to hold governments publicly accountable.
Not only are penalties mild elsewhere, Coliver found, prosecutions are rare. In six countries, nobody in the past decade has been convicted for disclosing state secrets. In Britain, since the 1989 Official Secrets Act took effect, only 10 public employees have been prosecuted. The longest sentence was imposed on a naval petty officer who sold intelligence to a newspaper about a possible Iraqi anthrax attack. He got a year.
In fact, apart from the United States, the only country where prosecutions are common is Russia. There, 10 government employees have been imprisoned in the past decade for from four to 15 years for disclosing government information publicly.
Europe’s courts seem to be moving toward support for whistleblowers, even when state security is breached.
In a 1996 case, a military intelligence official in Romania was initially sentenced to two years for releasing the tapes of illicit wiretaps his agency had made of journalists and politicians.