Last Thursday, President Biden vowed to make global financial systems more transparent so that individuals and organizations engaged in corruption would find it harder to “shield their activities.”
On the same day, a federal judge imposed prison time on Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a former Treasury Department official who, by providing secret government documents to an investigative reporter, did more to bring transparency to the global financial system than almost anyone else in recent memory.
If Mr. Biden really wants to fight corruption and bring transparency to global finance, he should pardon Ms. Edwards. He should also demand that the Justice Department, when deciding whether to prosecute someone who provides journalists with sensitive information, take into account the public importance of what the disclosures reveal.
In Ms. Edwards’s case, the public importance of the information she provided was enormous. Starting in 2017, she passed thousands of government documents to the investigative reporter Jason Leopold at BuzzFeed News (where I was the investigations editor at the time). She said repeatedly that her goal was to expose wrongdoing after she had tried, without success, to draw attention to it through the proper channels.
Her goal was realized. The documents she provided ended up serving as the basis for hundreds of important news articles, including ones that exposed suspicious financial transactions made by companies linked to President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as well as those involving Russian embassy employees. Most significantly, the documents Ms. Edwards provided lay at the heart of a collaborative investigation last year called the FinCEN Files, involving BuzzFeed News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 108 other news organizations that revealed financial corruption on a global scale.
Taken together, the articles exposed a dark truth: “Dirty money” — terrorist financing, drug cartel funds, fortunes embezzled from developing nations, the profits from organized crime — flows so freely through the world’s most powerful financial institutions that it has become inextricable from the so-called legitimate economy.
The prosecution in Ms. Edwards’s case, however, didn’t see her disclosures as a valuable public service. It told the court that she had committed a crime of “colossal” magnitude. After she pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully disclose financial documents, the judge sentenced her to six months in prison — the maximum under sentencing guidelines — and three years of supervised release.
This is hardly the first time that the government has treated journalistic sources aggressively. Ms. Edwards’s sentence comes on the heels of revelations that during the Trump administration the Justice Department, in an effort to uncover confidential sources, secretly obtained phone records from reporters at The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times.
Such actions reveal a fundamental contradiction in how the United States — home of the First Amendment and laws to protect whistle-blowers — treats the sources that make a robust press possible. The government has generally avoided prosecuting journalists. But it seems to feel no compunction about going after the people who give journalists their information.
In Ms. Edwards’s case, the prosecution derided her “grandiose platitudes about protecting the American people” and dismissed her description of herself as a whistle-blower. Yes, it conceded, she had started out by alerting the proper authorities about narrowly defined issues. But then, the prosecution argued, she went rogue, “indiscriminately” sending Mr. Leopold thousands of documents that “weren’t targeted to expose some particular wrongdoing.”
On that last point, the prosecution was right: The documents didn’t reveal just one particular wrongdoing. They offered a sweeping view of global financial corruption.
Perhaps the most important documents Ms. Edwards turned over were more than 2,000 “suspicious activity reports,” which banks file to the U.S. government to warn of possible financial misconduct. Never before had journalists been able to see so many of the financial transactions that the world’s banks themselves thought were suspicious but too often carried out anyway.
A Treasury Department agency is supposed to sift through suspicious activity reports and alert law enforcement agencies if the transactions seem likely to be crimes. But sources told BuzzFeed News that officials didn’t even read most of the reports and rarely took action on them. Worse, filing the reports all but immunizes banks and their executives from criminal prosecution. Far from being a tool to root out financial misconduct, the reports effectively give banks a free pass to keep moving money and collecting fees.
When the government does crack down on banks, it frequently relies on deferred prosecution agreements — sweetheart deals that include fines but no immediate high-level arrests. But the suspicious activity reports that we reviewed at BuzzFeed News showed that even when some banks were subject to such agreements, they still carried out dubious transactions.
When the series of articles based on the information provided by Ms. Edwards was published, it spurred meaningful action by authorities around the world. British lawmakers began a formal inquiry into Britain’s oversight of banks. Members of the European Parliament pushed for a stronger and unified strategy to fight money laundering. And in Washington, senior lawmakers credited the FinCEN Files investigation with helping to push through the most important anti-money-laundering legislation in a generation. In his memorandum last week, Mr. Biden specifically said that putting that law into effect would be a cornerstone of his administration’s anti-corruption effort.
But Ms. Edwards, whose disclosures helped bring about these reforms, has been ordered to report to prison in August. This is unjust and unfair. Our criminal justice system must recognize that much of what we know about financial corruption, government surveillance and corporate crime comes not from reporters working in isolation but from journalists working with people who risk their liberty and livelihood to ensure that the truth comes out.
Of course the government can and should censure some disclosures, such as those that are meant to harm the United States or aid its adversaries. But that is not the case here. In public filings, prosecutors claimed that Ms. Edwards’s revelations “put at risk countless investigations,” but they offered no proof of actual harm. Even if investigations were compromised, the reforms enacted in the wake of her disclosures might well prevent more misconduct.
The prosecution also argued that because suspicious activity reports are not hard evidence of a crime, their release violated the privacy of innocent people. But BuzzFeed News and other organizations involved in reporting on Ms. Edwards’s revelations went to great lengths to determine the factual basis of any suspicions to ensure that only verified information was published.
The value of Ms. Edwards’s disclosures, like those of so many people prosecuted for divulging documents of urgent public interest, far outweighs any harm they did. The Biden administration should acknowledge — in word and in deed — that individuals who reveal information of vital public importance are not criminals. They are patriots who deserve our gratitude.
Mark Schoofs (@SchoofsFeed) is the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
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