In Light of WikiLeaks, a Review of the Espionage Act of 1917

Julien Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was released from custody in London, where he was awaiting extradition to Sweden on sex crimes charges.  Recent press in the UK and USA (including The Guardian,  & The New York Times ) have announced that Assange will be charged with espionage in the United States.  Vice President Biden concurs.

Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, in an interview with David Frost on Al Jazeera television, suggested that a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia would indict Julien Assange on espionage charges soon.

Alternatively, the government might charge Assange with conspiracy. A recent Wired magazine article, speculates whether the government would use the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) 18 USC Section 1030, to avoid the first amendment issues arising under an Espionage Act indictment.  Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker of the government documents published by Wikileaks, is said to already face charges under CFAA ( ).

Our Library catalog, Julien, points to several books dealing with the history of the Espionage Act. Possible subject heading search for this topic are Freedom of the Press; Freedom of Information; or United States – Espionage act of 1917.

David Rabban, devotes a chapter to the early history of the Espionage Act and the first prosecutions under the Act in his book Freedom of Speech in the Forgotten Years (KF4772.R33 1997 ).

Among the first prosecuted under the Act was Eugene Debs, the five-time socialist candidate for president in the early 20th century.  Ernest Freeberg, in Democracy’s Prisoner:  Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, describes Debs life and the Espionage Act (HX84.D3 F74 2008).

Former dean of the University of Chicago Law School, Geoffrey R. Stone, in his 700 page study, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism writes on a the broader issue of free speech.  The bulk of the book covers World War I to the present, and includes discussions of Espionage Act cases and other efforts to restrict speech  (KF 591.S76 2004).

President Woodrow Wilson’s administration found the Espionage Act of 1917 weak and sought stronger, restrictive legislation in the Sedition Act of 1918.  The Sedition Act created new offenses, including “uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt, scorn contumely or disrepute as regards the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution, or the flag, or the uniform of the Army of Navy, or any language intended to incite resistance to the United States or to promote the cause of the enemy….”  It was quickly repealed as an amendment to the Espionage Act soon after the end of World War I.

Civil Liberties in Wartime: Legislative Histories of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 by William H. Manz is a two-volume set, covering, as the title implies, the legislative history of the Espionage Act, including the Sedition Act of 1918 (KF5060.A4 C58 2007 ).  Along with the texts of the acts, the volumes contains reports and hearings on the bills, the multiple versions of the bills, Congressional Record texts of the House and Senate considerations of the bill, as well as letters and a speech of the President.

Noted in the legislative history volume above, President Wilson said, in his June 1917 Flag Day Speech (the day before the Espionage Act of 1917 became law) that  “The facts are patent to all the world, and nowhere are they more plainly seen than in the United States where we are accustomed to deal with facts and not with sophistries….”  It may well be some time before we Americans find out the facts and sophistries of the WikiLeaks case.

Written by CAY + HEC