Obama turns WWI-era law against leakers

(By Deutsche Welle) During WWI, President Wilson signed off on the Espionage Act, in a bid to keep a lid on German spies in the US. But 96 years later, President Obama is using the act to aggressively prosecute leaks to the press.

The Obama administration has cracked down hard on national security leaks to the press over the past four years, dusting off the almost 100-year-old Espionage Act to pursue prosecutions against leakers in seven cases, twice the number of any other presidency combined.

At the end of last month, Bradley Manning became the first successful Espionage Act conviction under the Obama administration. Manning was WikiLeaks’ source for some 700,000 diplomatic cables and battlefield reports, the largest single leak of secret information in US history. Edward Snowden, who leaked several secret National Security Agency surveillance programs to the press, is the latest leaker to be charged under the act.

Signed into law in 1917, the Espionage Act criminalizes the transmission of defense information, which could cause injury to the US or give advantage to a foreign nation, to unauthorized people. According to Stephen I. Vladeck, an expert on national security law, the language of the act makes no distinction between old-fashioned espionage by foreign spies and whistle-blowing government abuse to the press.

“For better or worse, the Espionage Act is the American statute that best fits the crime of wrongfully disclosing national security information to someone who’s not entitled to receive it,” Vladeck told DW via email.

“Whether we’d call it leaking, whistle-blowing, or classic espionage, the statute treats all three as the same offense – and so the government understandably gravitates toward it in any case where it can,” he said.

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