Information leaks from within the federal government led to the revelation that now-former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions against his country soon after President Obama announced them. Flynn’s communication has led to speculation that he may have broken the law by talking to a foreign government about a dispute without U.S. authority. He was asked to resign after word got out that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence when he insisted that he didn’t discuss the sanctions with the ambassador.
But to President Donald Trump, the big story is that we know the story. Flynn was caught by U.S. intelligence officials after they wiretapped his communications with the ambassador. They also made transcripts of the conversations, but it wasn’t until that information mysteriously found its way to the Washington Post that anyone knew about it. On Twitter and in public statements, Trump has railed against the leaks, which the Post has only attributed to “current and former U.S. officials,” and heads will roll if he learns who’s behind them. As it turns out, the law is on his side. However, these leaks are notoriously hard to prosecute and are rarely pursued. But, if there are, here’s what could happen to the culprits.
First, there’s the prohibition against disclosure of classified information. This is the obvious one, since any publication of classified material to an unauthorized party is illegal. Under the Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. § 798, a person guilty of this can end up in prison for 10 years and face a fine. If the leaks involved classified information that was sent to members of the press, the source could end up behind bars if they’re caught. Opponents of Hillary Clinton argued that she violated this with her handling of emails on a private server, but the FBI determined they did not have a strong enough case to prosecute. As LawNewz.com contributor Philip Holloway wrote, the information regarding Flynn’s wiretapped phone calls is Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), which is highly classified, so if one of the “current and former U.S. officials” is identified, they could be in trouble.