Even if we did, we would not be able to make an informed judgment of their significance because what they relate to is likely itself classified – we’d be making judgments in a void.
And even if a judge in an Espionage Act case had access to all the information needed to evaluate the nature and risks of the materials, it wouldn’t matter. The fact that documents are classified or otherwise regulated as sensitive defense information is all that matters.
Historically, Espionage Act cases have been occasionally political and almost always politicized. Enacted at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War I in 1917, the act was largely designed to make interference with the draft illegal and prevent Americans from supporting the enemy.
But it was immediately used to target immigrants, labor organizers and left-leaning radicals. It was a tool of Cold War anti-communist politicians like Sen. 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 prominent prosecution of that era.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the act was used against peace activists, including Pentagon Paper whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Since Sept. 11, 2001, officials have used the act against whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Because of this history, the act is often assailed for chilling First Amendment political speech and activities.
The Espionage Act is serious and politically loaded business. Its breadth, the potential grave national security risks involved and the lengthy potential prison term have long sparked political conflict. These cases are controversial and complicated in ways that counsel patience and caution before reaching conclusions.
This is an updated version of an article originally published Aug. 15, 2022.
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Joseph Ferguson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.