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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs