An old piece of anti-spy legislation is back in the headlines after the FBI searched former President Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago residence for classified materials they believe he took from the White House.
The FBI has cited violations of the Espionage Act as a catalyst for its document seizure, and reported uncovering materials marked "top secret/SCI." Among them was a grant of clemency for famed Trump associate Roger Stone.
After unsealed documents revealed the FBI's findings and warrant for the search, Trump claimed he declassified all the documents prior to leaving office.
FBI released documents that reveal the Justice Department is investigating Trump for violations of the Espionage Act, obstruction of justice and criminal handling of government records. In response, Kentucky senator Rand Paul took to Twitter on Saturday to call for the repeal of the Espionage Act.
But what is the Espionage Act in simple terms, and why was it created?
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What is the Espionage Act?
The Espionage Act of 1917, enacted just after the beginning of World War I, makes it illegal to obtain information, capture photographs or copy descriptions of any information relating to national defense, with the intent for that information to be used against the United States or for the gain of any foreign nation.
Is the Espionage Act still in effect?
Many significant chunks of the Espionage Act of 1917 remain in effect and can be used in the court of law. In its modern iteration, the act has been used to prosecute spies and leakers of classified information.
In the headlines relating to the Trump Mar-A-Lago search, the section of the Espionage Act —which is itself a statute of 18 US Code Chapter 37— is 793.The concerns enumerated in 18 USC 793 are "gathering, transmitting or losing defense information."
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What was the purpose of the Espionage Act ?
The Espionage Act was passed to bolster the war effort. Enforced by President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, the law made it illegal to share any information that could interfere with the war or stand to benefit foreign adversaries. It was meant as a safeguard against spying.
At the time those found guilty could be fined up to $10,000 and serve up to 20 years in jail, according the The History Channel.
Is espionage a state crime?
Most espionage crimes are investigated by the CIA or FBI, making them matters of federal jurisdiction and resultant in federal charges.
What was the Sedition Act of 1918?
Passed as an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act made it prosecutable by law to make false statements that interfered with the war effort, insult or abuse the U.S. government, flag, constitution or military; and interfere with the production of war materials, according to The History Channel. It was also a crime under this act to advocate, teach or defend the former behavior.
The Sedition Act was was repealed by Congress in 1920 on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
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What is espionage?
This is both a philosophical and legal question. In it's strict definition, espionage is the practice of spying – usually to obtain confidential intelligence either of a military or political nature.
Cornell Law School describes espionage as "the crime of spying or secretly watching a person, company, government, etc. for the purpose of gathering secret information or detecting wrongdoing, and to transfer such information to another organization or state."
What is an example of espionage?
One famous example is that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple convicted in a conspiracy to share atomic intelligence secrets with the Soviet Union.
They were executed at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility in June 1953. The couple is particularly famous for being the first citizens convicted and executed for espionage during peacetime, The History Channel reports.
Who has been charged under the Espionage Act?
A number of notable figures have been charged under the Espionage Act. Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, was indicted under the law in 2019 for his role in releasing secret military and government information during the Obama presidency.
Daniel Ellsberg is another prominent name to be tried under the Espionage Act. Ellsberg was set to face 115 years in prison, Vox reports, for his famous leaking of the Pentagon Papers concerning the status of the Vietnam War to The Washington Post and The New York Times.
What was the punishment for violating the Espionage Act?
When it was passed originally, the penalty for being convicted of espionage under the Espionage Act was a fine of $10,000 or less and imprisonment for twenty years or less. Both the fine and the prison sentence could be imposed in conjunction as well.
What is CUI Basic?
CUI stands for Controlled Unclassified Information and refers to a subset of CUI in which the authorizing law, regulation or government-wide policy does not set out specific guidelines for handling or dissemination, according to The National Archives.
What are declassified documents?
Declassified means essentially to remove the previously prescribed "top secret" label.
Classified documents refer to the kind of material that government agencies have deemed so sensitive to national security that access must be controlled and restricted, Jeffrey Fields, associate professor of the practice of international relations at USC, wrote in an article for The Conversation.
There's an elaborate procedure to declassify documents, Fields wrote, though the president has the power to declassify anything at any time in accordance with provisions of the Atomic Energy Act.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Espionage Act, explained: Why was it created? What is the punishment?