How has a World War I-era law aimed at protecting secrets from foreign spies become a tool powerful enough to prevent the public from learning what its government is doing? You won’t find an answer by reading the language of the statute - for more than a century, lawyers have complained that the law is vague and confusing. To understand how the Espionage Act has taken on its current form, you need to trace its history.
The Espionage Act is one of the most controversial laws in U.S. history – it has been used not only to punish spies, but also to prosecute dissidents during World War 1 and leakers of classified information today (plus a certain ex-president). It also serves as the foundational law undergirding America’s runaway secrecy regime, which keeps huge amounts of information out of the public eye, and providing a veil to obscure decades of foreign policy and national security abuses. Tracing the surprising evolution of this confusing law over more than a century – through wars, spy-scares, and controversial court cases – this lecture reveals the dangers that the Espionage Act has posed, and continues to pose, to American democracy.