Washington — 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.