A federal court-authorized search of former President Donald Trump’s estate in Florida has again drawn attention to the obscure but infamous law known as the Espionage Act of 1917. One section of the law was listed as one of three possible violations under investigation by the Department of Justice.
Historically, the Espionage Act has been used most often by conservatives of law and order. But the biggest uptick in its use occurred during the Obama administration, which used it as the hammer of choice for national security whistleblowers and leakers. Regardless of whom it is used to prosecute, it inevitably provokes consternation and outrage.
We are both attorneys specializing in and teaching national security law. As you navigate the sound and fury of the Trump hunt, here are some things to keep in mind about the Espionage Act.
A legal analyst said former President Donald Trump could face a 10-year prison sentence if he is found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, a law that dates back to World War I.
The statute “that puts him in the most danger as far as I know at this time is 18 USC §§ 793, which is a part of the Espionage Act, where each violation carries a maximum sentence of 10 years,” Lisa said. Rubin, legal analyst for the Rachel Maddow Show.
The law essentially prohibits anyone from sharing or disseminating information that could harm or harm the US.
Under a heading that reads “Property to be Seized,” the warrant refers to: “All physical documents and records constituting evidence, contraband, proceeds of crime, or other items unlawfully possessed in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, 2071 or 1519.”
- 18 USC §§ 793: Collection, transmission or loss of defence information, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
- 18 USC §§ 2071: Concealment, removal, or general mutilation, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and disqualification from holding office (more on this below).
- 18 USC §§ 1519: Destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
According to The Washington Post and New York Times, the reason the Justice Department pushed so hard to recover missing classified documents from Trump’s home was that the documents, all of which Trump had improperly taken from the White House before they expired his term in January. 2021: He was referring to some of the nation’s best-kept secrets. Those secrets, The New York Times reported, included so-called “special access programs,” which are considered to be classified above the “top secret” level.
Special access programs, often called “codeword” programs because they can be identified by a single codeword that is itself classified, can be anything from foreign intelligence collected on an adversary’s nuclear stockpiles to the schematics for the nuclear reactors used to power American submarines.
I asked an acquaintance from my college days, a former US Navy submariner, if the presence of nuclear-related documents at Mar-a-Lago could make a difference in what happens to Trump. . His response was short and to the point.
Trump’s previous position gave him access to the full range of intelligence and information available to the US government. Once he lost that position, he reverted to the same state as anyone else, which meant that he lost any right to possess the classified documents that he had ordered packaged and shipped to Florida before leaving the White House.
Historically, Espionage Act cases have been occasionally political and almost always politicized. Enacted at the start of US involvement in World War I in 1917, the law was largely designed to make interference with conscription illegal and prevent Americans from supporting the enemy.
But it was immediately used to target immigrants, labour organizers and left-wing radicals. It was a tool of anti-communist Cold War politicians like Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1940s and 1950s. The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, is the most high-profile prosecution of that era.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the law was used against peace activists, including Pentagon Paper whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Since September 11, 2001, officials have used the law against whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Because of this history, the law is often attacked for chilling First Amendment political speech and activities.
The Espionage Act is a serious and politically charged issue. Its breadth, the serious potential national security risks involved, and the potential lengthy prison sentence have long sparked political conflict. These cases are controversial and complicated in ways that advise patience and caution before jumping to conclusions.
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