News / USA

NSA Leaker Charged Under 96-Year-Old Law

NSA leaker Edward Snowden is the lastest to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden is the lastest to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act.
Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is now living in exile in Russia, fearful that if he returns to the United States he’ll be arrested on espionage charges.
 
The irony is that the charges against Snowden, who was a computer expert at the high-tech National Security Agency, come from a law that dates back to before most Americans could listen to the radio, much less watch TV or surf the web.
 
The U.S. Justice Department’s charges against Snowden include theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. The last two charges stem from the Espionage Act of 1917, passed during World War I.
 
Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University in Washington, is an expert on the Espionage Act.
 
“It was passed as a way of trying to prevent individuals who are privy to what the statute calls ‘information relating to the national defense,’ what we now understand to be classified information, from disclosing it, from sharing it, from posting it, from moving it – even from holding on to it if they are not authorized to hold on to it,” Vladeck said.
 
The Espionage Act, says Vladeck, has always been the principal tool the U.S. government uses to prosecute not only spies, but also those who leak classified information without authorization. In recent years, the Obama administration has especially active in using the law against leakers.
 
“There have actually been now about a dozen prosecutions of national security leakers under the Espionage Act,” he said. “And those prosecutions have raised a host of questions – the most difficult of which is if it’s a crime for someone like Snowden to distribute this information, isn’t it also potentially a crime for The Guardian, The New York Times – you and me – to distribute this information once you receive it?
 
The dangerous line
 
“That’s the very dangerous line that most folks worry about when it comes to the Espionage Act,” Vladeck added.
 
Another legal expert who worries about the use of the nearly century-old law these days is Aziz Huq, a constitutional law and national security specialist at the University of Chicago. Huq says the Espionage Act is a very long and complicated law with a dozen or so provisions that can be interpreted in various ways.
 
Edward Snowden worked as a contractor with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.Edward Snowden worked as a contractor with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.
x
Edward Snowden worked as a contractor with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.
Edward Snowden worked as a contractor with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.
“One of my favorite examples of the breadth of the Espionage Act is that it’s arguable that every time someone reads a newspaper article that contains details of the documents that Snowden has released, they are committing a violation of the Espionage Act,” Huq said.
 
This is so, he explains, “because the Espionage Act can be read to include the receipt of information that you reasonably know was once classified and has never been declassified. So that’s how broad the Espionage Act goes.”
 
The ‘intent requirement’
 
Vladeck says the Espionage Act also presents another difficulty for the modern day defendant – it doesn’t contain what has come to be known in later decades as the ‘intent requirement.’
 
“The government doesn’t have to show that someone who violates the Espionage Act meant to harm the United States or meant to help a foreign power or had some kind of bad faith motive,” Vladeck said. “All the government has to show is that the defendant knew or should have known that the information, if it got out, would harm the United States or would help a foreign power.”
 
And that has made a government prosecutor’s job fairly easy in espionage cases, he said.
 
Since it first took office in early 2009, The Obama administration has prosecuted seven cases against leakers - about half of all those brought under the Espionage Act. Vladeck says the idea is send a warning to prospective whistleblowers.
 
“That’s the government’s hope,” said Vladeck. “The government would not be so aggressively and so zealously pursuing these cases if it didn’t believe that one of the effects of these prosecutions would be to deter future whistleblowers.”

(To see more of Andre de Nesnera's columns, click on the link below)

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: GlueBall from: Singapore
August 19, 2013 3:36 AM
It's somewhat far fetched to charge a foreign news organization with American espionage.

by: GH1618 from: USA
August 18, 2013 3:06 PM
"... Not only spies, but also those who leak classified information without authorization, ...".

That's a distinction without a difference in the case of Snowden. He admitted taking the job intending to extract classified information. He is a spy.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs