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What is the Espionage Act?

This image made from video provided by WCVB-TV shows Jack Teixeira, in T-shirt and shorts, being taken into custody by armed tactical agents on April 13, 2023, in Dighton, Mass.
This image made from video provided by WCVB-TV shows Jack Teixeira, in T-shirt and shorts, being taken into custody by armed tactical agents on April 13, 2023, in Dighton, Mass.

Massachusetts Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira, who has been accused of leaking a trove of highly classified documents online, faces two criminal charges: unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information, and unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents. The first charge falls under the so-called Espionage Act, a statute that the Justice Department has relied on to prosecute leaks of classified information.

What is the Espionage Act?

The Espionage Act prohibits obtaining or disclosing information related to national defense if the material could be used against the United States or to the advantage of foreign nations.

Why was it created?

Congress first passed the act in 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the law to be enacted to stop the spread of national security information during wartime.

What were the sedition amendments?

In 1918, Congress approved a set of amendments to the Espionage Act that criminalized speech disloyal to the U.S. government, the Constitution, the military or the U.S. flag. Those amendments were repealed in 1921 on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech.

Is the law meant to fight spies?

The Espionage Act was initially used to combat spying; however, in modern iterations, the act has been used to prosecute the leaks of classified information. The law makes it illegal to disclose defense information that could harm the United States, and prosecutors have successfully used it in recent years to send leakers to prison.

What does the law say about classified information?

The Espionage Act was enacted decades before the executive branch established the current system of classifying national security secrets in 1951. In modern times, the law is often used to prosecute the disclosure of classified documents, but it can also be used in the case of a disclosure of any national defense documents that could harm the United States.

Who has been prosecuted under the Espionage Act?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted under the act in 1951 for sharing atomic intelligence secrets with the Soviet Union, and both were later executed. CIA officer Aldrich Ames was sentenced to life in prison for revealing the identities of American informants to the Soviet Union in 1994, while Chelsea Manning spent seven years in prison for disclosing documents to WikiLeaks.

Who faces possible charges under the act?

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden faces charges under the Espionage Act for leaking classified documents but has yet to face trial because he fled to Russia, where he remains. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was investigating former President Donald Trump for possible violations of the Espionage Act and other crimes after classified documents were found at his home. Trump has not been charged with a crime as part of that investigation.

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