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How the Espionage Act of 1917 Became a Law Against Whistleblowing

With Bradley Manning convicted of espionage and Edward Snowden still moldering in a Moscow airport, it's worth looking at the law that streamlines America's prosecution of whistleblowers.
Pfc. Bradley Manning as drawn at his February 23, 2012, by USMC Sgt. Shawn Sales

Yesterday's verdict in the Bradley Manning court martial was a partial victory, but mostly a resounding defeat. Not surprisingly, the United States government wielded the Espionage Act, a law written to stop legit spies in the employ of foreign governments or agents, against a whistleblower working in the best interest of America.

That this law was used so successfully in the prosecution of a whistleblower is particularly troubling. It sets a dangerous precedent not just for defense employees, but also intelligence agents and pretty much anyone who comes into possession of classified documents. The US government, protecting what it believes to be its defense and intelligence interests, once again placed the whistleblower in the same legal arena as the double agent. In the future, whistleblower cases will only be easier to prosecute.


With that in mind, it's worth looking at the law that streamlines America's prosecution of whistleblowers. With a clearer picture of the Act's intent and evolution, perhaps we can start to ask the question of whether, after nearly 100 years, it needs some amending. If the same efforts that applied to fighting, say, legislation like SOPA and PIPA or in defunding the NSA, were used to overhaul the Espionage Act, there might yet be legal place for the whistleblower in America.


The tale of the Espionage Act really begins in the early 20th century. American legislators, essentially playing catch-up with other nations that already had anti-espionage laws, began to lobby for such a law. Technically, the US may have been enjoying a pre-WWI Pax Americana, but our military was embroiled in a war in the Philippines. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American war, we set our sites on the Philippines, and took the island nation by force. Meanwhile, politicians at home were busy crafting an act entitled "An Act to prevent the disclosure of national defense secrets."

The debate culminated in the Defense Secrets Act of 1911, which by today's standards featured pretty lax punitive measures. Those convicted of trading in defense secrets were to be imprisoned "not more than ten years." Child's play, really. As Europe descended into the chaos of World War I, it seemed vital to some that the US government needed stronger anti-espionage laws—a wider net with more punishment.

Read the rest over at Motherboard.