SOMEWHERE ON U.S. ROUTE 18 BETWEEN CHARLES CITY AND MASON CITY, Iowa ― Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg would not commit to rethinking the way the federal government prosecutes people who disclose classified information, instead distinguishing between politically motivated leaks during the Obama administration and the federal official who has sought formal “whistleblower” protections to raise the alarm about President Donald Trump’s conduct.
At two campaign town halls in Iowa on Sunday, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor singled out the federal official who has come forward as a whistleblower to report on Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, in which Trump appeared to suggest that U.S. security aid was contingent on Ukraine’s investigation of the activities of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Speaking at a high school in the northeast Iowa town of Waverly, Buttigieg said: “When somebody blows the whistle on official misconduct, that is an act of loyalty to the republic for which it stands.”
During a discussion aboard his campaign bus as it headed to a town hall in Mason City, Iowa, later in the day, HuffPost asked whether, given Buttigieg’s sympathy for the whistleblower at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry, he would still pursue criminal charges against politically motivated leakers of the kind prosecuted by the Obama administration. President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice drew condemnation from civil libertarians for aggressively pressing criminal charges against eight people accused of leaking classified information to the media.
“Not everybody who discloses classified information is a whistleblower,” replied Buttigieg, whose service as a U.S. Navy Intelligence reservist included a stint in Afghanistan. “One thing I was very much aware of when I was responsible for handling classified information would be the consequences of, especially willfully, mishandling or divulging.”
Instead, Buttigieg said he supports strengthening the channels through which national security and other federal officials can report and expose what they believe is misconduct, as well as the legal protections for those individuals once they have submitted their reports.
“One of the things I think we’ve learned is the importance of having a whistleblower function, so that if somebody sees wrongdoing, there is a way to have an accountability for that that doesn’t leave somebody a choice between committing a national security violation by divulging classified information, or being silent about abuses,” he said. “I think that’s the right framework to move forward in ― not one where we’re just deciding on a case-by-case basis, based on public opinion, what abuses of classified information we’re going to tolerate.”
HuffPost followed up to ask Buttigieg’s opinion on the case of Edward Snowden, the most famous Obama-era leaker. Snowden, a former analyst for the National Security Agency, shared with journalists a trove of classified documents in June 2013 that, among other things, revealed that the NSA was collecting the phone records of millions of Americans. He successfully sought asylum in Russia to avoid U.S. prosecution under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that the Obama administration revived to stamp out leaks, and which limits the tools with which people who are charged can defend themselves.
Buttigieg replied that Snowden’s conduct was “problematic, but also something that if we had a better framework and as we are moving toward with the whistleblower function would not create that same kind of problem, because to the extent that there was activity that was contrary to law or contrary to policy, there was no way to raise that besides just sending classified information out into the world.”
Asked by a Fox News reporter whether he would consider cutting a deal with Snowden to get him to return to the United States in exchange for some time of prosecutorial leniency, Buttigieg did not answer directly.
“That’s for the Department of Justice to evaluate whether there are convincing grounds for any kind of exceptions,” he said. “But, you know, there’s got to be a better way than just broadcasting highly classified information and putting lives at risk.”
Instead of leaks, he added, “whistleblower systems and laws ― and, by the way, vigorous [inspector general] systems” are the appropriate channels for reporting abuses. (The Ukraine whistleblower reported his concerns to the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community.)
Few of Buttigieg’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have diverged from the consensus view of the U.S. national security establishment that unauthorized leakers who decline to take advantage of official whistleblower protections should be prosecuted.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has called for the federal government to grant Snowden clemency, saying the former NSA analyst “did this country a great service.” In an October interview with The Intercept, Sanders also vowed not to prosecute any leakers under the Espionage Act.
In a follow-up interview on Monday, Buttigieg declined to rule out prosecuting leakers under the Espionage Act specifically.
“I don’t think I can prejudge a future scenario,” he said. “And also again, the less prosecution has to do with anything that an elected official would like in the Oval Office, is going to be better.”
The story has been updated with further comment from Buttigieg.