10 Aug 2006

District Court Rules: Espionage Act Applies to Private Citizens Receiving Unauthorized Classified Information

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Ruling against a defense motion to dismiss in the case of US v. Steven J. Rosen, Keith Weissman, District Court Judge Thomas Selby Ellis, III held that, under the federal Espionage Act private citizens can be prosecuted for unauthorized receipt and disclosure of classified information.

Although the question whether the government’s interest in preserving its national defense secrets is sufficient to trump the First Amendment rights of those not in a position of trust with the government [i.e. not holding security clearances] is a more difficult question, and although the authority addressing this issue is sparse, both common sense and the relevant precedent point persuasively to the conclusion that the government can punish those outside of the government for the unauthorized receipt and deliberate retransmission of information relating to the national defense.

The government must… prove that the person alleged to have violated these provisions knew the [restricted] nature of the information, knew that the person with whom they were communicating was not entitled to the information, and knew that such communication was illegal, but proceeded nonetheless.

Finally, with respect only to intangible information [as opposed to documents], the government must prove that the defendant had a reason to believe that the disclosure of the information could harm the United States or aid a foreign nation…

So construed, the statute is narrowly and sensibly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate interest in protecting the national security, and its effect on First Amendment freedoms is neither real nor substantial as judged in relation to this legitimate sweep.

It is to be expected that this ruling will be tested at the Appeals Court and Supreme Court levels, but Judge Ellis’ reasoning is sound, and there is distinct cause for a nervous evening on the part of several reporters working for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles and New York Times newspapers.

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Steven Aftergood reports at Secrecy News.

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