Former President Donald Trump may have violated US espionage law, some leading legal experts say, after classified White House documents were found at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, raising questions on penalties for past lawbreakers. .
The FBI raided Trump’s residence on Monday after Attorney General Merrick Garland’s endorsement and allegedly recovered sensitive government documents containing nuclear weapons information, according to The Washington Post.
The New York Times reported that the recovered documents included information relating to “some of the most classified programs” in the country. Sources said Newsweek that the raid was primarily based on information received from an informant, who identified the type of classified documents Trump still had and their location.
What is the Espionage Act?
The Espionage Act was first enacted by Congress in 1917 shortly after the United States entered World War I. Under the law, individuals are prohibited from obtaining “any information related to national defense with the intent or reason to believe that the information may be used to injure or benefit the United States.” of any foreign nation,” according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia on Middle Tennessee State University’s website. The law also applies to improper handling of sensitive national security information.
Part of the law also states:
“Anyone who, being in charge of or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, plan, plan, map, model, instrument, device, note or information , relating to national defence, (1) by gross negligence permits it to be removed from its place of custody or handed over to any person in breach of its confidence, or that it be lost, stolen, abstracted or destroyed, or (2 ) having knowledge that the same has been unlawfully removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to any person in breach of its trust, or lost, stolen, subtracted or destroyed, and fails to make a prompt report of such loss, theft, subtraction or destruction to his superior officer – shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than ten years, or both.
How have past lawbreakers been convicted?
The Espionage Act has been enacted at different times in American history, prompting some of its violators to flee the country or face penalties, with some penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment to execution. Here are some of the most prominent figures who have been punished under the law.
The Australian WikiLeaks founder faces 17 espionage charges with a potential prison term of 175 years if convicted under the law. Assange has been accused by prosecutors of illegally helping former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal thousands of diplomatic cables and classified military files, which were released by WikiLeaks in 2010.
He sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 after being extradited by Swedish authorities in November 2010 over rape allegations. Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum status in 2019.
The US Department of Justice has sought Assange’s extradition, which has been repeatedly blocked by UK courts, with a judge saying in January 2021 that extraditing him would be “oppressive” because of his mental health and that it could lead him to commit suicide.
However, in June UK Home Secretary Priti Patel approved Assange’s extradition following a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court in March that his deportation could proceed.
The US whistleblower, who was granted asylum in Russia in 2013, worked as a computer intelligence consultant and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) that revealed information about global surveillance programs .
Snowden has been hailed as both a hero and a traitor as his leaks have sparked debate over citizen surveillance practices. He is still wanted in the United States where he faces three espionage charges and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted, according to The Guardian.
A political activist and labor organizer from Terre Haute, Indiana, Eugene Debs was the Socialist Party’s candidate for President of the United States five times between 1900 and 1920. He was also instrumental in the rise of industrial unionism, helped pass advanced social and economic reforms and was known for defending anti-war activists from being accused of disloyalty.
Debs was arrested at a socialist event in Cleveland and was charged with 10 counts of violating the Espionage Act during a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio, according to The Smithsonian magazine. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison after the jury found him guilty on three counts.
According to the National Archives, Debs supported the socialist cause, during his speech in Canton, and denounced the war, saying: “They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and slaughter yourselves. under their command. You have never had a voice in war. The working class who make the sacrifices, who shed the blood, have never yet had a voice to declare war.
A prosecutor alleged at a trial in 1918 that Debs’ speech was “calculated to promote insubordination” and “spread obstruction to the project”, according to The Smithsonian Magazine.
“I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I hate war. I would oppose war if I was alone,” Debs told the jury. “I believe in free speech, war and peace… If the Espionage Act holds, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”
The first socialist U.S. congressman, Victor L. Berger, who was born in Austria and later moved to Connecticut before settling in Milwaukee, was also involved in labor politics, according to the Milwaukee Encyclopedia. He worked with Debs to found the Social Democratic Party, which was later named the Socialist Party of America.
Berger opposed World War I and touted anti-war views that cost him the loss of the mailing license for a publication he founded called The Chief of Milwaukee in 1917. He was charged under the Espionage Act the following year.
He was convicted along with four other Socialist Party leaders, and in early 1919 a judge sentenced each of them to 20 years in federal prison.
Julius Rosenberg, who worked as an engineer for the US Army Signal Corps, and his wife Ethel, a secretary, were both executed by electric chair in 1953 for violating the Espionage Act by spying on behalf of the Soviet Union , according to History.com. They were the first American citizens to be executed for espionage in peacetime.
Julius first met Ethel through the Communist Youth League of which they were both members. The couple were arrested in 1950 on suspicion of violating the Espionage Act, accused of running a spy ring that provided sensitive secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.