Can anyone explain the difference between leaking classified information where the information leaked doesn't technically violate any laws (ie- wikileaks) & printing something like the drone report (drones violate international law but we knew that before the papers) and actually whistleblowing like cigarette companies have been using carcinogens or NSA violating American rights. The first two are treason, but the latter two are whistleblowing? Does what is reported actually matter to avoid a treason charge?

  • I think it comes down to whoever has the most money really. I am interested in answers though. What country are you talking about here?
    – Terry
    Oct 26, 2015 at 15:04
  • United States primarily but if anyone knows if there is any country that states the difference in their laws or relevancy in international law I would be very interested in finding out as well. I don't have any secrets @terry just interested in what is covered to protect the individuals law-wise. Oct 26, 2015 at 15:17
  • I suspect none of these are treason under US law. Treason is an extremely specific crime.
    – cpast
    Oct 26, 2015 at 18:02

1 Answer 1


"Whistleblowing" by publicizing classified information does not have a safe harbor in the law. In the U.S., everyone who is given access to classified information signs NDAs acknowledging that unauthorized disclosure of classified information will subject them to both civil and criminal penalties. (Even non-government NDAs subject violators to civil penalties, unless used to report a crime.)

Granted: no contract can be used to punish someone for reporting a crime. But there are means to report crimes one sees in classified information without breaking the law.

If one believes that classified information showing law-breaking is being tolerated "all the way to the top" then, in principle, one would have to take one's allegations public, which does violate the law. Of course, such legitimate disclosures become highly politicized. If the "whistleblower" in such a case is actually charged then he can ask for a jury trial and try to convince the jury that breaking the law was justified, or even morally necessary.

"Treason" is just one of the more severe crimes you can face for "whistleblowing" by injudiciously disclosing particularly sensitive classified information. The elements of treason are very simple. From 18 USC 115:

Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason....

  • But that's for publishing NDA "classified information". If you can proove that there already was a leak, and you are confirming an OSHA complaint: Oct 26, 2015 at 17:04
  • You could only be charged with Treason in connection with leaking information if the government could establish not only that you violated your duty to protect the information but also that the leak provided aid and comfort to enemies of the country. Otherwise the most serious criminal charge you could face would be something like Unauthorized disclosure of classified information. But again, there are ways to share/reference classified information for the purposes of addressing wrongdoing that wouldn't require unauthorized disclosure.
    – feetwet
    Oct 26, 2015 at 17:09
  • I see. But for example if A Senator leaks to NYTimes that Bush was tapping Americans cellphone thru NSA and they write an article: nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/… Then Snowden confirms it- why is he the one charged with whistleblowing and undisclosure and not the Senator and the two reporters? Oct 26, 2015 at 17:21
  • Merely disclosing classified info to the public is unlikely to net a treason charge, since treason is so specific (and you'd need to establish intent to betray the country; intent to reveal government abuses to the American people isn't intent to aid an enemy). This sort of thing is why espionage laws exist.
    – cpast
    Oct 26, 2015 at 18:00
  • I guess its a wild west out there, better just be a journalist before you whistleblow. Oct 26, 2015 at 18:16

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