Espionage Act Makes Felons of Us All

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Dear Americans: If you are not "authorized" personnel, but you have read, written about, commented upon, tweeted, spread links by "liking" on Facebook, shared by email, or otherwise discussed "classified" information disclosed from WikiLeaks, you could be implicated for crimes under the U.S. Espionage Act -- or so warns a legal expert who said the U.S. Espionage Act could make "felons of us all."

Image credit to Abode of Chaos

As the U.S. Justice Department works on a legal case against WikiLeak's Julian Assange for his role in helping publish 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables, authorities are leaning toward charging Assange with spying under the Espionage Act of 1917. Legal experts warn that if there is an indictment under the Espionage Act, then any citizen who has discussed or accessed "classified" information can be arrested on "national security" grounds.

image credit to Noah Sussman

According to the Act, anyone "having unauthorized possession of, access to....information relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense" which "could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation" and "willfully retains" that information, can be fined or imprisoned "not more than ten years, or both."

Benjamin Wittes, who specializes in legal affairs, blogged, "By its terms, it criminalizes not merely the disclosure of national defense information by organizations such as Wikileaks, but also the reporting on that information by countless news organizations. It also criminalizes all casual discussions of such disclosures by persons not authorized to receive them to other persons not authorized to receive them-in other words, all tweets sending around those countless news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party conversations about their contents. Taken at its word, the Espionage Act makes felons of us all."

This may be why the State Department has warned certain people not to read or to discuss WikiLeak content on social media -- not unless they wished to be considered a security risk. CNN reported that "unauthorized federal workers and contractors have been warned not to attempt to read the classified documents on WikiLeaks." According to the recently hacked Gawker, an anonymous tip revealed that the U.S. military warned soldiers not to read "about the Wikileaks disclosures-or read coverage of them in mainstream news sites." Even students at Columbia University that might wish to be hired by the State Department were warned not to comment upon or post links to the WikiLeak cables.

Although Cablegate and the leaked secret cables might be embarrassing for the government, Wittes noted that the majority of them don't contain information that directly relates to "national defense." The Espionage Act does not "cover the overwhelming bulk of the material that Wikileaks disclosed," he stated.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) suggests that there may be sufficient legal precedent to keep the news media from being held liable. The EFF stated, in an effort to oppose online censorship, that the CRS is a "must read" for anyone who reports on, mirrors or hosts the U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. "Hopefully, this information will help counter much of the fear that our government's so-called 'war' against Wikileaks has generated."

This story, "Espionage Act Makes Felons of Us All" was originally published by Computerworld.

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