Sen. Wyden introduces bill to reform Espionage Act of 1917

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is working to reform World War I-era espionage legislation.

The Espionage Act was made into law in 1917 as the United States formally entered WWI against Germany. The act basically made it a crime for a person to give information to an enemy that could interfere with the war effort.

On March 5, 2020, Democrat Senator Wyden announced he’s joining Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) to introduce the “Espionage Act Reform Act” at a time when, Wyden says, “The Trump-Barr Justice Department increasingly targets whistleblowers and political enemies.”

The new legislation reportedly reaffirms First Amendment protections for whistleblowers and journalists who publish classified information.

“In America we don’t prosecute journalists for what they write – especially when it comes to how the government may be weaponizing the intelligence agencies for political gain,” Wyden said. “The Espionage Act currently provides sweeping powers for a rogue attorney general like Bill Barr or unscrupulous president like Donald Trump to target journalists and whistleblowers who reveal information they’d rather keep secret. This bill ensures only personnel with security clearances can be prosecuted for improperly revealing classified information.”

Khanna said in part, Our nation’s strength rests on the freedom of the press, transparency, and a functioning system of checks and balances. This bill is a step toward ensuring those same principles apply to intelligence gathering and surveillance operations.”

According to Wyden’s office, the Espionage Act Reform Act will do the following:

  • Protects journalists who solicit, obtain or publish government secrets from prosecution.
  • Ensures that each member of Congress is equally able to receive classified information, including from whistleblowers. Currently, the law criminalizes the disclosure of classified information related to signals intelligence to any member of Congress, unless it is in response to a “lawful demand” from a committee. This puts members in the minority party and those not chairing any committee at a significant disadvantage.
  • Ensures that federal courts, inspector generals, the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board can conduct oversight into privacy abuses.
  • Ensures that cybersecurity experts who discover classified government backdoors in encryption algorithms and communications apps used by the public can publish their research without the risk of criminal penalties. It is up to governments to hide their surveillance backdoors; academic researchers and other experts should not face legal risks for discovering them.

The full bill text is available here. Read a summary of the bill here.

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