In April 2011 President Obama accidentally made a boo boo by declaring Bradley Manning guilty before trial. The blogosphere went nuts. Soon after, though, Presidential spokesperson Tommy Vietor said the following:
“The president was emphasizing that, in general, the unauthorized release of classified information is not a lawful act" (quoted at Politico.com)
Actually, in general, it is a completely lawful act, and Congress has repeatedly failed or refused to criminalize it; why? That's how government gets things done! Leaking to the media! Then you fight your battle in the realm of public opinion instead of having to fight it through Congress with your wits alone. And Americans love it; they love to read newspapers and books based on what 'senior officials' have said. They love trying to figure out who the senior officials are, and why they are saying what they are saying.
Is it ethical? Will it get you fired? Will you get blacklisted from government contract work? Will your security clearance be revoked? Will your boss yell at you? I don't know any of those answers.
But is it illegal? That is an entirely different qusetion. "In general", I believe that the answer is no. Why? Because there is no single blanket law outlawing classified information. Jennifer Elsea, in her January 2011 paper for the Congressional Research Service, calls the law here a "patchwork"; there are different laws covering different kinds of information, in different cirucmstances, affecting different people differently. The word "classified" in fact has no clear, set, simple definition. Let alone terms like "national defense information". Benno and Schmidt in their 1973 paper make similar points. Congress has even stopped itself from passing such a 'blanket law', on purpose.
So President Obama's spokesman, Tommy Vietor, appears to have made a flat out, bald faced, false statement to the public. Perhaps President Obama and his staff would do well to read two papers on Espionage Law and Free Speech (both are on the Federation of American Scientists website)
Harold Edgar & Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. (1973). "The Espionage Statutes and Publication of Defense Information". Columbia Law Review
Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information Jennifer K. Elsea, CRS, Jan 2011
The "Incomprehensible" Espionage Act of 1917, Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists
Barack Obama on Bradley Manning: 'He broke the law' - MJ Lee and Abby Phillip - POLITICO.com 4.25.11