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100 Years of the Espionage Act: Prosecuting Spies, Leakers, and Radicals

by Countable | 6.15.17

One hundred years ago today on June 15, 1917, the Espionage Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, putting in place criminal punishments for those who would "convey information" that undermines the U.S. military or aids its enemies.

What did it do?

In his 1915 State of the Union address, Wilson asked Congress for legislation to "save the honor and self-respect of the nation" by punishing the “infinitely malignant” persons whose disloyalty undermines U.S. security and strengthens its adversaries. Congress took until 1917 to seriously debate the legislation, when controversial provisions censoring the press favored by Wilson were removed by a one vote margin in the Senate, allowing it to advance.

The final version of the bill made it a crime to convey information with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the U.S. armed forces or help its enemies succeed — punishable by death or by at least 30 years imprisonment, or both. Conveying false reports with the intent undermine the U.S. military to the advantage of its enemies, cause mutiny in or obstruct the recruiting or enlistment of the U.S. armed forces was punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or up to 20 years imprisonment, or both.

It also allowed the Postmaster General to impound or refuse to mail correspondence that violated either of the above prohibitions, and included a seemingly uncontroversial provision that prohibited the U.S. from transferring naval ships to countries fighting a conflict the U.S. is neutral in.

What has its impact been?

While the ban on transferring naval vessels made it more difficult for President Franklin Roosevelt to provide military aid to Great Britain before the U.S. entered World War II, the Espionage Act’s biggest impact has been on those prosecuted under it.

The Espionage Act, and the restrictions on "disloyal" speech added to it by the Sedition Act of 1918, was used heavily during World War I to prosecute radicals who opposed the draft, or expressed unfavorable opinions about the government or the war effort — few spies were caught. One such radical was Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist Party presidential candidate who ran for president while serving his prison sentence (which was later commuted).

President Wilson pardoned or commuted the sentences of about 200 prisoners who’d been convicted under the laws, which underwent a major overhaul to remove the speech restrictions added by the Sedition Act. That came after a landmark Supreme Court case, Schenck v. U.S., which upheld the law but included Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous opinion that:

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

The Espionage Act was used sparingly during World War II, but experienced a revival of sorts during the Red Scare of the 1950s when it was used in the prosecution of Soviet spies, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who sold nuclear secrets to America’s Cold War adversary. It was also used to unsuccessfully prosecute the authors of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and in the convictions of several others for providing state secrets to the Soviets and others during the ensuing decades.

While prosecutions for providing secrets to foreign governments have occurred in the 21st century, the Espionage Act has primarily been used prosecute leakers in the current era. Of the 13 Americans prosecuted for leaking secrets to the press since 1917, the Obama administration alone arrested eight of them, including Chelsea Manning (Edward Snowden was charged under the law, but has evaded arrest). The Trump administration has already arrested its first leaker — Reality Winner — who is facing a felony charge under the Espionage Act.


Have questions about politics? Let us know! Send us an email and you could see your answer in a future post.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army graphic / Public Domain)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(72)
  • Vanessa
    06/15/2017
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    It's a sad day when our brave men and women must choose whether to alert the public to treasonous attacks on our democracy as a whistle blower, or face a jail sentence. Now more than ever before, whistle blowers must be protected from corrupt administrations seeking to hide the truth.

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  • Nashluna
    06/15/2017
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    It's not leaking when it's your own notes that you spoke to in a public hearing, and that weren't confidential. And when you speak out against a tyrannical government it's whistleblowing and the Whistleblower Act protects these rights.

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  • Jenna
    06/16/2017
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    We must protect whistleblowers, especially in our intelligence community. The timing of this feels extraordinarily suspect. No one seemed to care about leaking (including our president during his campaign) until it was damaging to the current administration. This is a dangerous precedent.

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  • L0u15e.N032L
    06/16/2017
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    Caution. We see our Government in Watergate, Irangate, the Trump "issues" and his people interacting with Russia, all sorts of activities that we want to know and understand where the info is provided to the press. If we can't have info openly, if FOIA's aren't easy to use and take years, then we have no real info at the public level to judge what secret and perhaps stupid decisions our political parties are taking on "behalf of the American people". Perhaps We the People do not want the course being taken. Without people taking a risk to provide the info, we are duped and controlled. No thank you. We need to consider the nuances. Not all leaks are bad. Not all punishments are fair. Clearly people who think a wrong is being done do not feel they can get a fair hearing or discussion, so they leak. We do need whistleblowers.

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  • Ticktock
    06/16/2017
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    What is it when a US citizen discovers that the intelligence community is violating the law or lying to the public? Snowden was alerting the US citizens that the intelligence community was illegally intercepting US telephone calls and Reality Winner provided the only convincing evidence of serious Russian hacking. These people were instrumental in protecting our freedom. I'm certain that Ms Winner no longer has a job but I for one would like to thank her. The information in that memo should have been released to the public to convince us of the seriousness of the on going investigation. To heck with the security clearance the information served a greater purpose. I'm also certain that Snowden has found himself a new home and is learning Russian and probably learning to hack secure computer systems.

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  • Kristen
    06/16/2017
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    Reality Winner isn't the criminal. Trump and the traitors are.

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  • Jackie
    06/16/2017
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    Strange Trump loved leaks during his campaign when they concerned Hillary. Now they are about him and he wants to lock them up. Double standard here.

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  • denali
    06/16/2017
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    Whistleblowers must be protected.

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  • Karen
    06/15/2017
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    This would stop Governmental officials from reporting treason if they know of it. Leakers of treason are usually called heros because they help maintain our National Security. No such thing as leakers if everything is aboveboard and there isn't anything to hide.

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  • Joanne
    06/16/2017
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    Aren't we taught "if you see something, say something ". Whistleblowers are doing just that. Alerting the public. They should be protected, not punished!!!

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  • Wallace
    06/16/2017
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    What is the greater crime? Leaking of secrets that help protect our democracy or the leaking itself!! We are fortunate that some Americans love our country so much!!! I may never know you but thank you from the bottom of my heart!!

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  • Dale
    06/16/2017
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    I hope someone will leak the gang of 18s secret healthcare plan in time to do something other that just lay down and try to live with whatever it contains.

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  • Joe
    06/16/2017
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    Hmmm. Like contacting a foreign leader who is known to be another Country's ally before bombing said Country? That would NEVER happen.

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  • L
    06/16/2017
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    Didn't Trump do this when he disclosed Israeli secrets to the Russians? Never mind that everything he says or does diminishes us. Arrest him already!

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  • Jack
    06/16/2017
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    Punishment for the President as well? With out the whistle blowers, we would not know about the treason committed by our President and his Russian buddies in the Oval Office. His corrupt administration is is making a mockery of our government and damaging our whole way of life. My opinion is that he would like to turn America into a autocracy run by filthy rich oligarchs just like Russia. This cover up reaches into congress and exposes all of the offenders. Our democracy is at risk each day he is allowed to continue in office.

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  • Bob
    06/16/2017
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    Trump passed on sensitive information to the Russians (his close friends) and walks away untouched????? Then you plan to prosecute someone who verifies that the Russians interfered with our election???? Guess you have to be a corrupt, rich, old white guy to do that, eh - or one of his enablers (see a mirror around Tiberi & Portman?????).

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  • Derrick
    06/16/2017
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    Patriotic "whistle blowers" are not traitors. If you have been sworn to secrecy to keep an illegal act or to cover up corruption and violations of human rights it should not be considered a crime against your country but a duty. Only in the minds of fascists and fascist systems are patriots persecuted for being courageous enough to jeopardize themselves when protecting our rightful freedoms as citizens of the United States of America.

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  • Eileen
    06/16/2017
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    Interesting...the only person I find "infinitely malignant" right now is the president, and without whistle-blowers we couldn't even begin to find the truth.

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  • Sandra
    06/16/2017
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    I don't understand how this espionage act applies to Reality Leigh Winner if the information leaked was not to a foreign government AND the information actually helps the average American citizen to better understand the Russia war on us so that we are conscious as to the gravity of the what is happening and be able to better fight back at all levels.

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  • Lizbeth
    06/16/2017
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    Protect government whistle blowers when they expose abuses by our own government. A necessity for a healthy democracy!

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