Rand Paul is right: We should repeal the ‘Espionage’ Act

One of the laws the federal government is using to investigate Donald Trump arguably shouldn’t exist.

The FBI’s raid on former President Donald Trump’s Florida home was reportedly spurred in part by an investigation into possible violations of the Espionage Act. (As well as other potential offenses unrelated to the Espionage Act). In response, some are arguing that this law shouldn’t exist in the first place.

“The Espionage Act was abused from the beginning to jail dissenters of World War I,” Senator Rand Paul said. “It is long past time to repeal this egregious affront to the 1st Amendment.”

What’s the Espionage Act?

“Congress enacted the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917, two months after the U.S. entered World War I, to stifle dissent of U.S. involvement in the war,” CBS reports. “In modern day, it’s been used against those who leak classified information and those who remove classified information from secure facilities and store it at home.” 

“The fact that it is still called the Espionage Act is really confusing for most people, because the law generally has nothing to do with spying at this point,” one expert told CBS. 

That’s right: the Espionage Act is usually used to go after war dissenters, not spies.

Most recently, it has been used to persecute whistleblower and journalist Julian Assange—whose expansive and vital work revealed the extent of the United States’ war crimes in the Middle East. Many believe Assange’s revelations were an important part of turning the climate of the country against the endless War on Terror. And it is this that the military industrial complex and intelligence community cannot abide by, because war is the primary business of the U.S. and our agencies. 

Few journalists are still doing their jobs these days, and by jobs, we mean really investigating those in power and providing transparency into our government’s operations that the public needs in order to hold our officials accountable. And perhaps for good reason. Cases like Assange’s scare other journalists away from doing meaningful work and instead incentivize them to chase easy clicks and hype up the culture war.

This is intentional. And it was with this kind of chilling effect in mind that the Espionage Act was passed in the first place. 

The Law’s Disturbing History 

Notably, the bill’s language is excessively broad and not at all tailored to the activities its name drums up. Rather, it prohibits, “obtaining information, recording pictures, or copying descriptions of any information relating to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

Let that sink in.

This law was made to prohibit criticisms of the nation’s wars, and it was promptly used to go after draft dissenters at the time. Eugene Debs, a prominent socialist during WWI, was sentenced to 10 years for his criticisms of that war. Another member of the socialist party, Charles Schenck, was similarly prosecuted by the government for handing out flyers that stated the draft, imposed by Woodrow Wilson, violated the 13th Amendment.

But the Espionage Act is a bipartisan offender. It has also been used throughout history to go after Republicans as well.

Opposing the Espionage Act Doesn’t Mean You Support Spying

Senator Paul’s call to repeal the Espionage Act has, predictably, led to backlash. 

It should go without saying—but apparently it doesn’t—that opposing the Espionage Act doesn’t mean you support spying. As the expert we quoted earlier noted, it hardly has anything to do with actual espionage anymore anyway. And a politician’s ultimate oath is to the U.S. Constitution—the First Amendment of which the Espionage Act most certainly runs afoul of. 

“The Espionage Act is a fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional law,” the American Civil Liberties Union argues. “This act is unconstitutionally vague because it allows the government to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers that it dislikes, while leaving untouched the many leakers within the security state who release classified materials to advance those agencies’ bureaucratic aims.” 

“As it stands, the Espionage Act makes NO distinction between a civic-minded whistleblower who releases something that should never have been classified and which reveals illegal government activities, and a spy who sells genuinely damaging documents to a foreign government for cash,” the ACLU further notes. “The Espionage Act needs to be repealed and replaced with a fairer law.”

We agree.

Repeal the Espionage Act

While we should certainly be concerned with actual spying and matters of actual national security, that’s never been what the Espionage Act was really about. Instead, this law is a workaround to the First Amendment that will always be used to shut down dissent, limit information, and strip us of our First Amendment rights as long as it is allowed to stand on our books.

Decades worth of unconstitutional and unexamined wars that have wasted our countries’ resources abroad and needlessly gotten our people killed prove that the Espionage Act is currently working as intended and preventing journalists from telling the American people the truth about our foreign affairs.

So, Rand Paul is right: It’s time to purge this rot from our legal books. 

If this can’t be done immediately, bipartisan efforts to reform the Espionage Act (currently underway) are also worthy of our support.

This article is an editorial representing the official view of BASEDPolitics. 

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