Donald Trump’s own history with the Espionage Act
Last week, FBI agents executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, seizing 11 sets of classified documents, including one at the highest level of US government classification. The search warrant cited three criminal statutes. One related to the obstruction – which the New York Times says may be because a lawyer working for Trump signed a written statement saying they had already turned over all classified documents, which doesn’t was not true. Another related to the theft of government documents. And the last one concerned Section 793 of the Espionage Act, a law that covers “the collection, transmission or loss of defense information”.
The Espionage Act 1917 became controversial. Despite its name, it’s not really used to chase spies anymore. In recent years, Democratic and Republican administrations have used it as a weapon to intimidate the media as well as sources who have provided important information to the public, angering civil rights advocates.
This is not Trump’s first encounter with the Espionage Act, although it is the first time he has been charged. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, Trump’s Justice Department indicted five journalist sources — none of whom were spies — under the Espionage Act. (Several other journalistic sources have been prosecuted under lesser laws.) Here’s how the Espionage Act charges played out against people Trump used it against.
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During the 2016 presidential election, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, or GRU, launched cyberattacks in support of Trump’s campaign. In one, the GRU sent spear-phishing emails to local election officials in swing states hoping to trick them into opening the malicious attachment that would hack into their computers. At the time, Trump called all of this “fake news.”
In 2017, Reality Winner, then a National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower, who was 26, leaked a classified NSA document to The Intercept that detailed this GRU plot. Trump’s Justice Department charged and convicted her under the Espionage Act. In the midst of a trial, Winner reached a plea deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one charge. She was sentenced to five years and three months in prison and three years of probation: the longest sentence ever handed down for the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents to the media. (In June 2021, Winner was released early from prison.)
State election officials first learned of the GRU’s spear-phishing attack on them through media reports, but only from Winner; the NSA had not warned them. Two former election officials told CBS News’ 60 Minutes that Winner’s disclosure helped secure the 2018 midterm elections.
In early 2017, The Intercept published a series of revelations based on confidential FBI guidelines from an inside FBI whistleblower, including details of controversial tactics to investigate minorities and spy on journalists.
In 2018, Trump’s Justice Department charged and convicted Terry Albury, then an FBI special agent, under the Espionage Act for absconding. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of probation.
During Albury’s distinguished 16-year counterterrorism career with the FBI, he “often observed or experienced racism and discrimination within the Bureau,” according to court documents. The FBI’s only black special agent in the Minneapolis field office, he was particularly troubled by what he saw as “systemic bias” within the bureau, particularly regarding the FBI’s mistreatment of informants.
In early 2017, WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents and hacking tools detailing the CIA’s offensive cyber capabilities, collectively known as Vault 7 – the largest leak of classified information in the history of the CIA. CIA. These releases lead Trump’s CIA Director Mike Pompeo to declare WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service.” The CIA even considered kidnapping or assassinating Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, because of this release of documents and hacking tools.
It was a sharp reversal in Trump’s attitude towards WikiLeaks. Less than a year earlier, during the 2016 election, WikiLeaks published emails hacked by the Democratic National Committee’s GRU, perfectly timed to distract the public from a video of Trump bragging about sexual assault. Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks.”
In 2018, disgruntled CIA software developer Joshua Schulte, who worked programming the hacking tools released by WikiLeaks, was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking the Vault 7 documents to WikiLeaks. Last month, Schulte was found guilty at a jury trial on nine counts under the Espionage Act. He has not yet been sentenced, but he faces up to 80 years in prison. He also faces additional charges related to sexual assault and child pornography.
In 2015, The Intercept published a series of articles that provided the most detail ever made public about the US government’s irresponsible agenda to target and kill people around the world, including US citizens, with drones. The revelations were based on leaked classified documents.
In 2014, FBI agents raided the home of whistleblower Daniel Hale, a former NSA drone operator and later outspoken anti-war activist, whom they suspected of being the source. President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, however, declined to press charges. The Trump administration, on the other hand, was more than happy to pursue the matter. In 2019, Trump’s Justice Department indicted Hale under the Espionage Act. After pleading guilty to one of the counts, he was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison.
Henry Kyle Frese
In 2018, CNBC published eight articles containing classified information about Chinese weapons systems, including that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and a surface-to-air missile system in the South China Sea.
In 2019, Henry Kyle Frese, a counterterrorism analyst for the US Defense Intelligence Agency, was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking documents about Chinese weapons systems to the CNBC reporter. , who he was dating, and his NBC News colleague. Frese pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and six months in prison.
Now Trump has found himself on the other end of an Espionage Act investigation. (President Joe Biden’s Justice Department authorized a search of Mar-a-Lago that cited the Espionage Act in its justification, but no charges against Trump have yet been filed.)
Unlike most of those accused of the Espionage Act during the Trump administration, with the possible exception of Schulte, Trump’s theft of classified documents was not aimed at exposing attacks on democracy, putting highlight government atrocities or add anything interesting to the public discourse.
In their allegations, authorities offered no explanation of Trump’s motives for keeping classified documents when he left the White House in 2020. Knowing Trump, that was nothing altruistic. We do know, however, that Section 793 of the Espionage Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.