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Trump charged under Espionage Act – which covers a lot more crimes than just spying

Thomas A. Durkin, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, Loyola University Chicago and Joseph Ferguson, Co-Director, National Security and Civil Rights Program, Loyola University Chicago, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Two recent senior Democratic administration officials – Sandy Berger, national security adviser during the Clinton administration, and David Petraeus, CIA director under during the Obama administration – each pleaded guilty to misdemeanors under the threat of Espionage Act prosecution.

Berger took home a classified document – in his sock – at the end of his tenure. Petraeus shared classified information with an unauthorized person for reasons having nothing to do with a foreign government.

Some of the documents the FBI sought and found in the Trump search were designated “top secret” or “top secret-sensitive compartmented information.”

Both classifications tip far to the serious end of the sensitivity spectrum.

Top secret-sensitive compartmented information is reserved for information that would truly be damaging to the U.S. if it fell into foreign hands.

One theory floated by Trump defenders is that by simply handling the materials as president, Trump could have effectively declassified them. It actually doesn’t work that way – presidential declassification requires an override of Executive Order 13526, must be in writing, and must have occurred while Trump was still president – not after. If they had been declassified, they should have been marked as such.


And even assuming the documents were declassified, which does not appear to be the case, Trump is still in the criminal soup. The Espionage Act applies to all national defense information, or NDI, of which classified materials are only a portion. This kind of information includes a vast array of sensitive information including military, energy, scientific, technological, infrastructure and national disaster risks. By law and regulation, NDI materials may not be publicly released and must be handled as sensitive.

Cases involving classified information or NDI are nearly impossible to referee from the cheap seats.

None of us will get to see the documents at issue, nor should we. Why?

Because they are classified.


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