Home Politics Politics Lists

The New Political Prisoners: Leakers, Hackers and Activists

Meet the new generation of dissidents being locked up for taking a stand against the government

Bradley Manning

On February 28th, Army private first class Bradley Manning pleaded not guilty to the charge of aiding the enemy for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010. After more than 1,000 days in prison, Manning may be America's most famous political prisoner – but he's far from the only one. From environmentalists to hackers to whistleblowers, the U.S. government has made a policy of charging and convicting a wide range of activists across the country. To the FBI, an information transparency activist like the late Aaron Swartz is apparently more dangerous than the men who ruined the nation's economy, and an environmentally-minded economics student poses a greater threat than the oil companies polluting America's natural resources. The government insists that such harsh penalties are necessary to protect national security – but as hacker Jeremy Hammond said in a recent letter from prison, this misleading rhetoric ultimately "enables the politically motivated prosecution of anyone who voices dissent."

By Meredith Clark

Bradley Manning Explains His Motives
The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Hammond: Enemy of the State
The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

John Kiriakou

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

John Kiriakou

WHO: John Kiriakou, 48

THE CRIME: John Kiriakou is a former CIA agent who led the team of agents that found Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in 2002. He was also a frequent source for journalists covering national security. Kiriakou emailed the name of a covert CIA officer to a reporter; the reporter never published the officer's name.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: Kiriakou has been hailed by human rights groups for identifying the U.S. government's use of waterboarding as torture in a 2007 interview with ABC News. He is the most high-profile in a number of cases the Obama administration has brought against people for leaking information to the media. These cases form a pattern that could have a chilling effect on other government workers who want to expose government misdeeds.

THE PUNISHMENT: Kiriakou pleaded guilty last year and received a sentence of two and a half years in prison in January. No one involved in creating and overseeing the brutal techniques he discussed has gone to prison. As a fellow former CIA officer told The New York Times in January, "The irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that he's going to be the only C.I.A. officer to go to jail over torture."

Eric McDavid

Courtesy of Support Eric McDavid

Eric McDavid

WHO: Eric McDavid, 35

THE CHARGE: McDavid and two others, Zachary Jenson and Lauren Weiner, were arrested in January 2006 and charged with conspiracy over plans to bomb several locations in California.

PROBLEMS WITH THE CASE: In the early 2000s, during what activists have called the "Green Scare," the federal government used controversial tactics to target radical environmental groups like the Earth Liberation Front, which Eric McDavid was a member of. An FBI informant, known only as "Anna," was paid more than $65,000 by the government and was given money to pay for gas, food and supplies for McDavid and the others – enough to raise serious questions of entrapment. Two jurors later submitted declarations saying that they believed McDavid deserved a new trial and condemned the FBI's behavior in the case.

THE PUNISHMENT: Weiner and Jenson both pled guilty to lesser conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with the government against McDavid, who was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison after being found guilty in May 2008.