The FBI investigation into possible Espionage Act violations by former President Donald Trump for keeping top-secret documents at his Florida resort, has sparked curiosity in a World War I-era law that has rarely been used to prosecute actual spies.
Although the precise nature of the documents found at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is not clear, the Espionage Act criminalizes keeping or disclosing without authorization information that could harm the national defense or could aid U.S. enemies. Under the Obama administration, federal authorities aggressively went after whistleblowers and document leakers, none more famous than Edward Snowden after he exposed the government’s mass surveillance system.
In the 1950s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted and executed under the Espionage Act for allegedly sharing top-secret information about the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union. They were the only American citizens ever executed as spies during peacetime. But, for the most part, the Espionage Act has rarely been used to punish espionage.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Christopher Capozzola, an expert on citizenship, war and the military in modern America at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses the law’s sordid origins. The Espionage Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson in a climate of xenophobia and anti-Red hysteria in 1917, the year the U.S. entered WWI. But because many Americans opposed fighting in what they viewed as a war between European colonial powers, Congress included provisions allowing the federal government to crack down on dissent.
“It’s a crucial turning point in U.S. history and the history of the federal government, and a window into what American society is really like in a moment of tension and crisis. It was a very divisive war and not all Americans agreed we should enter it. Many felt that entering the First World War would be a departure from American traditions by sending troops abroad,” said Mr. Capozzola, the author of “Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen.”
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About 2,000 people were imprisoned for violating the law’s prohibitions on disloyal speech or for urging Americans to resist the draft, Mr. Capozzola said. Socialists were frequently targeted, including Eugene V. Debs, who was arrested after giving an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, in 1918. Debs was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In a course correction after the war, Congress repealed or let expire the censorship provisions of the law.
For more on the origins, uses, and abuses of the Espionage Act, download this episode of History As It Happens.