Rand Paul Brings New Attention to Espionage Act

Senator wants the law mentioned in Trump search to be repealed
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 16, 2022 7:44 AM CDT
Rand Paul: It's Time to Ditch Espionage Act
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(Newser) – A Rand Paul tweet has focused new attention on the nation's Espionage Act, and a number of outlets are exploring his call to repeal it as well as the history of the WWI-era legislation. Coverage:

  • Paul's case: "The espionage act was abused from the beginning to jail dissenters of WWI," tweeted the GOP Kentucky senator. "It is long past time to repeal this egregious affront to the 1st Amendment." He linked to a 2019 essay from the Future of the Freedom Foundation calling for the same, that one written in the context of the Julian Assange case.
  • Trump search: Paul did not mention former President Trump, but his tweet came in the wake of the FBI's Mar-a-Lago search. The Justice Department cited the Espionage Act as among the possible laws that Trump may have violated in its justification for the warrant. The pertinent part of the law in regard to Trump concerns "gathering, transmitting or losing defense information," per USA Today. That is, the department isn't accusing Trump of being a spy but of mishandling sensitive documents.

  • The basics: NPR has a primer on the 1917 law, put into effect as the nation entered World War I, which "made it illegal for people to obtain or disclose information relating to national defense." But the law has morphed since then. Instead of going after spies, it is typically used these days to go after those who leak government information. Eight such leakers were prosecuted in the Obama administration and at least six in the Trump administration. Paul is correct in stating that WWI dissenters were imprisoned under the law, but a historian tells the outlet that law almost certainly couldn't be applied that way today.
  • Hypocrisy? Bess Levin of Vanity Fair accuses the senator of "rank hypocrisy" in calling for the law's repeal as soon as it could be applied to Trump. And Levin applies the criticism to other Trump supporters. "Despite the fact that Trump literally campaigned on prosecuting Hillary Clinton and sending her to jail over her alleged mishandling of classified information, his stooges in the GOP now insist that it is absolutely not a big deal to take classified, top secret documents from the government."
  • Or a valid point? At Reason, Scott Shackford points out that "Paul has been a longtime critic of how federal surveillance and espionage laws are misused to target American citizens for inappropriate purposes," and the senator opposed harsher penalties under the Espionage Act that Trump signed into law in 2018. Still, calling for outright repeal is new for Paul. In any case, the idea has "absolutely zero" chance of happening, writes Shackford. However, he argues the law could and should be reformed "so that it does not apply to journalists and will allow whistleblowers to turn to government officials to point out abuses without risking prosecution."
(Read more Rand Paul stories.)

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