CV NEWS FEED // The 1917 Espionage Act was passed to repress political dissent after the United States entered World War I, but why is it still relevant?
Former President Donald Trump is facing criminal charges for violating the Espionage Act, but what exactly is he being charged with?
Here is everything you need to know about the Espionage Act.
The foundation for the Espionage Act was first laid in 1911 by President William Howard Taft, who signed into law the Defense Secrets Act, which made it illegal to collect and share defense information with parties that had no clearance.
In 1917, two months after the U.S. entered World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which builds upon the 1911 act. It defines espionage more clearly and outlines the punishments for those caught engaging in behavior injurious to the U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson was particularly concerned with repressing disloyalty to America during a time when many American citizens were native born Germans and might still have had sympathies toward their native homeland.
Early on, the Espionage Act was used to prosecute political dissidents and individuals who opposed forced military enlistment, attempted to acquire sensitive defense information with the intention of harming the U.S. or helping a foreign nation, or circulated false information about the success of America’s enemies.
Anyone charged could be subject to a $10,000 fine and imprisonment for twenty years. During wartime, the punishment could be imprisonment for thirty years or even the death penalty.
The Espionage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918, which amended it, also cracked down on criticism of the government and the war by allowing the Postmaster General to censor mail that contained such criticism.
Because the Sedition Act obviously infringed on Americans’ First Amendment rights, it was repealed in 1920. Still, federal prosecutors accused more than two thousand individuals of violating the Act before it was repealed.
Since then, the federal government has continued to bring charges under the Espionage Act.
Perhaps most famously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted after spying for the Soviets during World War II. In 1953, they became the first and only American citizens to be executed for the crime of espionage.
In the last decade, there have been high-profile cases. Former CIA analyst Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have been charged with violating the Espionage Act by leaking classified information.
On June 8, Donald Trump was indicted for 37 violations of the Espionage Act, becoming the first former president to be charged with a federal crime.
>>> Read the full indictment here.
He has been accused of 31 counts of “Willful Retention of National Defense Information” which are all classified under Title 18, United States Code, Section 793(e).
Counts 32-37 are accusations of “Conspiracy to Obstruct Justice,” “Witholding a Document or Record,” “Corruptly Concealing a Document or Record,” “Concealing a Document in a Federal Investigation,” “Scheme to Conceal,” and “False Statements and Representations,” respectively.
Before departing from the White House on January 21, 2021, when he was no longer president, Trump allegedly ordered boxes containing hundreds of classified documents to be transported from the White House to his home at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, which is not an authorized location for classified documents.
Prosecutors also allege that Trump willfully retained the classified documents when federal authorities requested them and tried to mislead law enforcement officials seeking their whereabouts.
On June 13, Trump pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
Judge Aileen Cannon serves as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida and will oversee the proceedings going forward.
Given the classified nature of the documents, one difficulty will be determining which documents may be used as evidence. The Classified Information Processing Act (CIPA) governs this process.
Once those decisions regarding the documents are made, Trump’s lawyers can argue that the Justice Department should drop the charges against him even before a trial.
If the process continues, CIPA will be used to decide which documents the jury will be allowed to view.
Judge Cannon will set the schedule going forward, but given the sensitive nature of the case, many believe it is unlikely that a trial will happen before the 2024 election.
Trump currently has a trial scheduled in March 2024 for the Manhattan district attorney’s separate criminal case related to payments Trump made to a former mistress.
In the event that the Mar-a-Lago records trial can proceed before the election, it will likely be after the New York trial.
In the meantime, Trump is free to continue running his presidential campaign.
Should he be convicted, he would not be the first person to run for president with criminal convictions. In 1920, Eugene Debs ran having been convicted of violating the Espionage Act and Lyndon LaRouche ran in 1992 after he was convicted of fraud.