With the acceleration of hacks, breaches and cyber interference, managing and protecting national secrets has never been as difficult as it is today. The world has reached a point where digital intrusion is a reality, and where the label of “top secret” means increasingly less.
However, these realities scarcely change that a fundamental part of defending national security is how governments treat such sensitive information. This perspective has been held by successive administrations, yet seems at odds with decisions made by President Obama about WikiLeaks mole Chelsea Manning.
What are we to make of the commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence? And how are we also to interpret the pardon received by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright?
While the two cases are wildly different, they share some features in common.
Classified disclosures on a personal whim
First, both cases involved the disclosure of highly classified information. While the Manning case was not focused on the nation’s cyber capabilities, it leveraged computer systems to collect a large volume of diplomatic communications and reports.
In the Cartwright case, information regarding US military cyber capabilities was released to the media — and then lied about to the FBI. At least, that is what the general declared in his guilty plea.
This latter case also continues the unfortunate precedent established by the lenient sentence received by former General David Petraeus when he pled guilty to a charge of mishandling classified material — sharing it with the person with whom he was conducting a clandestine affair, Paula Broadwell.
Personal judgments superseded national security risk guidance
Second, Manning asserts that she had not expected a sentence as severe as the one that she received — 35 years in a military prison, essentially arguing that her personal cost-benefit judgments on the impact of the leaks should govern the sentence received in a US military court.
She defends her leaks as “required” due to US actions in Iraq and elsewhere that violated a personal moral code — and her concept of international law.
In Cartwright’s case, he argued that his unauthorized disclosures were designed to counter a greater risk — the national security reporting of named journalists on STUXNET. Cartwright’s pardon creates a situation where an admitted criminal act involving the leak of the most highly classified information has been essentially forgiven.
An indirect vindication of WikiLeaks?
And what of WikiLeaks — that paragon of journalistic objectivity?
Julian Assange is already arguing that this outcome validates the stances taken by his organization. A more troubling element is that there is implicit conditionality here. Assange has pledged — albeit obliquely — that he would leave Ecuador’s London embassy, and submit himself for possible extradition to the United States if Chelsea Manning’s sentence was commuted.
Now it looks like he won’t leave the Embassy, and the outgoing administration will likely be accused of being suckered – believing an NGO – WikiLeaks – that it has only recently portrayed as a willing agent of Vladimir Putin.
President Obama’s highest responsibility is to safeguard the national security interests of the United States. Integral to that duty is reinforcing deterrence against those who would weaken our nation’s security through the selective, willful, and unauthorized release of sensitive information.
When the issues of a case are not in doubt – and where the guilt of the parties is not in question – predictability and fairness require just and swift punishment. Manning will have completed 7 years of imprisonment by the time of release next May. Cartwright will not see the inside of a prison cell, receiving the utmost leniency. That differentiates these two cases.
What unites them, however, is a disregard for the precedent of not pursuing redress against individuals who would impose national security risks on the country to validate their own personal moral code.
That should not be allowed. And when it is, the integrity of our system of laws designed to protect US security from the compromise of sensitive intelligence is weakened.
David Mussington is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and is also the Director, Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, University of Maryland. He is an expert on issues centered around cybersecurity, cyber-defense and cybercrime
This article first appeared in The Hill
An earlier version of the headline on this article incorrectly implied Chelsea Manning had been pardoned, when in fact her sentence was commuted