The United States legal system is built on the system of precedents. That is a “principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar facts.” Future cases can utilize these precedents for referencing and swaying court decisions in their favor based on previous interpretations or allowances under the law.
In 2009, Petty Officer First Class Kristian Saucier took pictures on his cell phone while aboard a nuclear submarine. Six photographs included classified or restricted areas, and showed a part of the nuclear reactor configuration. The phone was found in a trash can. After being alerted that an investigation was pending, he destroyed additional storage material to include a flash drive and computer hard drive. Saucier knew the area was restricted and took the pictures to show his family what he did. The decision to destroy the additional storage devices were further example of trying to hide his actions and resulted in additional charges.
His lawyers have submitted a memo prior to the sentencing phase of the court to request leniency during punishment. Instead of the more than five years that Saucier is facing, they are requesting probation only. Their justification: the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, and more than 110 emails which were sent with at least some classification attached to them.
While this may seem to be an arguable case under an established precedent, the FBI elected not to seek charges against Clinton. This is not the same as a court case with an associated decision. Similarly, General Petraeus was not charged with the mishandling of secret information.
In contrast to this, a recent case involving a Department of Defense contractor that retained secret documents resulted in a decision for only probation after the judge determined there was no “intent of harm or dissemination to a foreign agent.” This is a prime example of a legal precedent which can be argued for, although there is a profound difference between a contractor and a service member.
At the end of the day, Saucier’s decision to photograph the propulsion system seems ignorant and naïve, but not necessarily malicious. It is often such ignorance that the release of these classified documents makes its way into the hands of foreign governments and agents though. Therefore, the highly punitive example sought for by the government of more than five years is intended to discourage future similar actions from occurring.
There are no words to articulate what must have been going through the mind of the service member when he took the photographs and destroyed the hard drives. One can only examine it from the perspective of a reasonable individual in the same position and hope that all parties learned their lesson and understand their mistakes. While it may seem justified to seek the probation under legal precedents, it is important to invoke the correct ones.
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