Once Reserved For Spies, Espionage Act Now Used Against Suspected Leakers : Parallels President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act to target spies during World War I. The Obama administration used it against suspected leakers, and now the Trump administration is doing the same.

Once Reserved For Spies, Espionage Act Now Used Against Suspected Leakers

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One hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act to deal with spying against the U.S. during World War I. Historically, prosecutions have been rare, but the law made a vigorous comeback recently with the Obama administration and now the Trump administration using it to prosecute suspected national security leakers. Here's NPR's Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Some of the most notorious spy cases have been tried under the Espionage Act, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg convicted in 1951 of giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Four times today, atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appealed their sentence of death, and four times they were unsuccessful. They will be executed tonight, probably within the next half-hour, the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair.

MYRE: As national security lawyer Mark Zaid explains, the act is sweeping, barring any disclosure of secrets that could harm the country's defense.

MARK ZAID: It applies to what would be the conventional spies who are spying for an enemy, but it also includes individuals who leak classified information.

MYRE: Individuals like Chelsea Manning, the former Army private, and Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor. They're among eight people charged or convicted of leaking national security secrets under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration. That's more such cases than all its predecessors combined.

Now the Trump administration is pursuing its own case. Reality Winner is a 25-year-old contractor. She's accused of divulging a national security agency document that details Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Zaid says we've entered a new era with encryption apps, thumb drives and other technology that can spread classified information in a click. But he adds...

ZAID: Even though it's easier now to grab these documents, it is a lot easier for the government to track the documents.

MYRE: Winner has pleaded not guilty, though the FBI says she left a trail of bread crumbs. The Bureau says the NSA document was printed at her office. An anonymous letter was postmarked in Augusta, Ga., where she lives. She reportedly had email contact with The Intercept, the outlet that published the document.

She was arrested June 3 just two days after the FBI was alerted to the leak. Like Snowden and Manning, she's a young, junior-level figure who had access to highly classified material.

ZAID: When I first started representing individuals suspected of leaking classified information back in the mid-'90s, the government was never able to catch any of these people. They would have loved to have prosecuted them. They couldn't. The evidence was lacking.

MYRE: The Espionage Act never envisioned modern communications, and critics call it antiquated. It was last amended more than a half century ago. Stephen Kohn, the author of "The New Whistleblower's Handbook," says government workers can petition to legally disclose information, including classified information, in many ways. His book offers 30 rules. Employees can formally appeal to their own agency. They can go to an inspector general or a federal court or head to that very reliable source of leaks, Congress.

STEPHEN KOHN: All of a sudden, what might be just four or five people knowing something could be 200 people knowing something. And some of those entities leak on their own. I'm just saying this is how to protect yourself.

MYRE: As an attorney, Kohn counsels against unlawful leaks and says being tech-savvy doesn't make someone safe.

KOHN: You just got to go low-tech. So when I say beware of an electronic footprint, beware of your electronic footprint.

MYRE: Kohn looks back to Watergate and the way Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein handled their key source, FBI official Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat.

KOHN: You know, ultimately it's funny - the way that Deep Throat communicated in the Nixon era, you know, in a (laughter) - in the parking lot orally. It was pretty smart.

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.


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