What Is the Espionage Act? Its History and Origins

When FBI agents seized 11 sets of top-secret and sensitive documents from former President Trump‘s Florida residence Mar-a-Lago, per a search warrant revealed on Friday, it was an unprecedented moment—but one that could be traced back to a law that’s more than a century old.

It is clear that Trump’s Espionage Act was violated by the agency as evidenced in the warrant. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican was interviewed. quick to call for a repeal of the law,He dismissed it as old-fashioned. “The espionage act was abused from the beginning to jail dissenters of WWI,” he tweeted. “It is long past time to repeal this egregious affront to the 1st Amendment.”

But while the law—which was designed to prevent the unlawful retention of information about national defense, which a foreign enemy could use to harm the U.S.—passed during World War I, to crack down on people who criticized the war, NPR reportsThe 1920 law’s strict sections on censorship were repealed by lawmakers.

And perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that the law would find a new spotlight today, at another moment rife with fears about a betrayal of the U.S.

Continue reading: Analysts Warn Violent Rhetoric After FBI Mar-a-Lago Search Is a Preview of What’s to Come

TIME previously reported that World War I increased xenophobia, and the fear of immigrants inspiring an uprising similar to the Russian Revolution which began in 1917. In 1918, Eugene V. Debs, Socialist Party presidential candidate, was arrested and sentenced under the Espionage Act to 10 years in prison after being accused of delivering a speech designed to cause “disloyalty” and “insubordination.”

“There was a crackdown on dissent, and simple criticism of the government was enough to send you to jail,” Christopher M. Finan, author of The Patriot Act to the Palmer Raids: A History Of American Fight for Free Speech TIME.

The combination of high inflation and job loss only made those fears worse. In 1919, more than 3,600 striking workers put employers on alert for communist infiltration.

Espionage Act cases have been rare. Notable uses of the law include the 1957 arrest of Colonel John C. Nickerson Jr., “the first American to be prosecuted for leaking top-secret national security information to the press,” according to historian Sam Lebovic. Lebovic outlined this in an article. PoliticoNickerson oversaw a missile programme and agents found classified documents hidden in Nickerson’s Huntsville home. Daniel Ellsberg, who was accused of leaking Pentagon Papers under the Espionage Act in 1970s, was dismissed by a judge.

In 2017, Wikileaks document dumps sparked conversation about the Espionage Act, and the Congressional Research Service outlined the main uses of the law throughout American history, stating, “Historically, the Espionage Act and other relevant statutes have been used almost exclusively to prosecute (1) individuals with access to classified information (and a corresponding obligation to protect it) who make it available to foreign agents, and (2) foreign agents who obtain classified information unlawfully while present in the United States.”

Eight whistleblowers were charged with federal crimes in the United States, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, for using the Espionage Act.

Trump’s investigation is a good example of this. the first time An Espionage Act investigation was conducted on a President who has served.

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