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

Computer Crash Halts US Visa, Passport Operation

Problems with database have resulted in extensive backlog of applications, affected State Department's consular offices all over the world More

Migrant Issues Close to Home Spur Groups to Take Action

Groups placing water, food in the desert, or aiding detainees after release, have one common goal: no more deaths of migrants crossing illegally into the US More

World Bank: Boko Haram Stalls African Aid Projects

Islamist group’s terrorism sets back agriculture, health efforts in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria 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.
Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnelsi
X
July 24, 2014 4:42 AM
The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video MH17's 'Black Boxes' Could Reveal Crash Details

The government of Malaysia now has custody of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was hit by a missile over Ukraine before crashing last week. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports, the so-called black boxes may hold information about the final minutes of the flight.
Video

Video Living in the Shadows Panel Discussion

Following a screening of the new VOA documentary, "AIDS - Living in the Shadows," at the World AIDS conference in Melbourne, a panel discussed the film and how to combat the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid