Dusty Espionage Law With Jewish History Takes Center Stage in Snooping Scandal

World War I-Era Law Snares NSA Leaker Edward Snowden

Privacy Please: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, speaks at a rally for accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. Ellsberg has become an outspoken opponent of the government’s use of the Espionage Act to target those who reveal controversial programs.
getty images
Privacy Please: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, speaks at a rally for accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. Ellsberg has become an outspoken opponent of the government’s use of the Espionage Act to target those who reveal controversial programs.

By Nathan Jeffay and Nathan Guttman

Published July 17, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

An antiquated World War I-era spy law with links to a string of Jewish figures over the year has unexpectedly grabbed the global spotlight as America’s government tries to keep a lid on the National Security Agency snooping scandal.

The Espionage Act of 1917 has emerged in recent years as a key tool in the fed’s arsenal against Edward Snowden and other assorted whistleblowers, officials leaking information and journalists who report their stories.

Originally intended to combat foreign spying, the 96-year-old statute has morphed into an anti-leak tool involving many Jewish suspects, including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, senior staffers for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and journalists recently named as co-conspirators for publishing classified information.

Advocates of prosecuting leakers based on the Espionage Act argue that despite its imperfections, the statute provides the only reasonable legal vehicle for dealing with officials disclosing government secrets, such as Bradley Manning, who provided Wikileaks with a trove of military and diplomatic documents, and Snowden, the CIA contractor who revealed the existence of NSA programs for spying on telephone and Internet activities.

But civil liberties advocates warn that prosecutions under the law have ballooned in recent years. The Obama administration has issued more indictments under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. The statute was also used to pinpoint reporters publishing leaked information as “unindicted co-conspirators.”

“I’m not surprised that a Democratic administration is doing it more than a Republican one,” said Morton Halperin, senior adviser at the Open Society Foundations. Halperin served in key foreign policy positions in previous administrations, and also as Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is being used to protect themselves from Republican claims that they are the leakers or that they’ve done too little to prevent leaks,” he said.

One of the first major prosecutions under the Espionage Act in modern times was the 1973 trial of Ellsberg, who leaked a 7,000-page report on the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Ellsberg, who was born to Jewish parents who converted to Christianity, was put on trial, but a judge dismissed the case amid widespread prosecutorial irregularities, including revelations that his phone was tapped. Ellsberg is now a leading voice in the battle against government prosecution of whistleblowers and has spoken out against the prosecution of Manning and against Snowden’s indictment.

The most extreme use of the Espionage Act, experts agree, was carried out in 2004, when George W. Bush’s Department of Justice charged Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, lobbyists at the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.