As the story of the National Security Agency‘s sweeping surveillance programs continues to crowd the news cycle, Glenn Greenwald‘s source of the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden, has become the latest flashpoint in the debate over prosecuting leakers who are heroes to some, traitors to others, and criminals to the Justice Department. One factoid that is endlessly repeated is that “the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined,” which is a little bit misleading without context. As a matter of fact, President Obama has prosecuted twice as many leakers under his watch than all other presidents combined, but all other presidents combined had prosecuted three people under the Espionage Act.
Could you conclude that President Obama’s six prosecutions make him the Judge Roy Bean of whistleblowers? Sure, but a fair person would have to consider a few things, not the least of which is that this presidency is taking place in a very different time than its predecessors. The proliferation of media that was in its infancy under George W. Bush has grown up and had several litters of kids. There are exponentially more reporters now, and a nearly nonexistent barrier to entry into the profession. At the same time, there are also exponentially more potential leakers, with almost 5 million Americans holding government clearance, and about 1.4 million with “Top secret” clearance.