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

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid