Julian Assange, My Parents and the Espionage Act of 1917

[NOTE: our Recent Press Coverage page has links to media coverage spawned by this blog, including Robert's interviews on Democracy Now!, KBOO Radio, and RTTV (Russian news).]

Rumors are swirling that the United States is preparing to indict Wikileaks leader Julian Assange for conspiring to violate the Espionage Act of 1917. The modern version of that act states among many, many other things that: “Whoever, for the purpose of obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States” causes the disclosure or publication of this material, could be subject to massive criminal penalties. It also states that: “If two or more persons conspire to violate any of the foregoing provisions … each of the parties to such conspiracy shall be subject to the punishment provided for the offense which is the object of such conspiracy.” (18 U.S. Code, Chapter 37, Section 793.)

I view the Espionage Act of 1917 as a lifelong nemesis. My parents were charged, tried and ultimately executed after being indicted for Conspiracy to Commit Espionage under that act.

The 1917 Act has a notorious history. It originally served to squelch opposition to World War I. It criminalized criticism of the war effort, and sent hundreds of dissenters to jail just for voicing their opinions. It transformed dissent into treason.

Many who attacked the law noted that the framers of the Constitution had specifically limited what constituted treason by writing it into the Constituton: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” (Article III, section 3). The framers felt this narrow definition was necessary to prevent treason from becoming what some called “the weapon of a political faction.” Furthermore, in their discussions at the Constitutional Convention they agreed that spoken opposition was protected by the First Amendment and could never be considered treason.

It appears obvious that the Espionage Act is unconstitutional because it does exactly what the Constitution prohibits. It is, in other words, an effort to make an end run around the Treason Clause of the Constitution. Not surprisingly, however, as we’ve seen in times of political stress, the Supreme Court upheld its validity in a 5-4 decision. Although later decisions seemed to criticize and limit its scope, the Espionage Act of 1917 has never been declared unconstitutional. To this day, with a few notable exceptions that include my parents’ case, it has been a dormant sword of Damocles, awaiting the right political moment and an authoritarian Supreme Court to spring to life and slash at dissenters.

It is no accident that Julian Assange may face a “conspiracy” charge just as my parents did. All that is required of the prosecution to prove a conspiracy is to present evidence that two or more people got together and took one act in furtherance of an illegal plan. It could be a phone call or a conversation.

In my parents’ case the only evidence presented against my mother was David and Ruth Greenglasses’ testimony that she was present at a critical espionage meeting and typed up David’s handwritten description of a sketch. Although this testimony has since been shown to be false, even if it were true, it would mean that the government of the United States executed someone for typing.

But the reach of “conspiracy” is even more insidious. It means that ANYONE with whom my parents could have discussed their actions and politics could have been swept up and had similar charges brought against them if someone testified that those conversations included plans to commit espionage. Thus, the case against my parents was rightly seen by many in their political community of rank and file Communist Party Members as a threat to them all.

Viewing the Wikileaks situation through this lens, it becomes apparent why the government would seek to charge Assange with conspiracy. Not only Assange, but anyone involved in the Wikileaks community could be swept up in a dragnet. Just as in my parents’ case, the prosecutors could seek to bully some involved into ratting out others, in return for more favorable treatment. This divide and conquer approach would turn individuals against each other, sow the seeds of distrust within the broader community, and intimidate others into quiescence.

This kind of attack threatens every left wing activist. I urge all progressives to come to the defense of Julian Assange should he be indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

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Nobody could address this more authoritatively, personally, estutely, and powerfully than you have, in this post, Robbie. Hoping history doesn't repeat itself here -- but PEOPLE, get ready. (Amy B.)

Please put Share links or Tweet and Facebook buttons on your site, it makes it much simpler and easier to share with my friends. I came upon this site because of my interest in Wikileaks. The site is a gem and more should know about it.

The law as stated above is flexible enough to include all of us in th era of social networks. That it should be allowed to exist in any century let alone this one is astounding.That a self proclaimed progressive regime should seek to implement it is depressing and indicative (along with Gitmo etc,) of how little in actual fact has changed.

Thanks for the inspiring message. I hope Americans will find the courage and the strenght to come to the defense of Julian Assange should he be indicted. But how can this be done?

Please find our small community on FB - called 3WC for now.

We are writing an open letter to the US government regarding its attempts to try Assange on espionage and the implications this has on democracies everywhere. We need your help. We are looking for volunteers to join us by reading a small portion of this open letter - read by citizens around the globe - and delivered as a strong message from people everywhere that we are standing up for our rights, and for our democracies.

Find us on facebook for now. Message me if you'd like to participate.


Thank you for this clear-sighted and eloquent analysis of where we seem to be headed. The divide-and-conquer strategy is already at work, although it sometimes seems that many citizens have internalized the values of authority to such a degree that bullying them is hardly necessary. (Susan K.D., Canada)

We call for this modern media innovator, and fighter for human rights extraordinaire, to be afforded the same rights to defend himself before Swedish justice that all others similarly charged might expect, and that his liberty not be compromised as a courtesy to those governments whose truths he has revealed have embarrassed.

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Your father sold nuclear secrets to the Russians and gave them to Israel. He betrayed not only his country but the potential for widespread peace for at least a century.

I cry no tears for him. Your mother, however, was probably excuted for vengence, which is disgusting.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were traitors and deserved to be executed for what they did. There is no comparison to Assange.

Why would the Rosenbergs give the Soviets the secret to the Atom Bomb. Did they even know how to build an atom bomb let alone detonate it. Doubtful. But they took the fall. Were they innocents? Doubtful. Did they deserve to die. If they didn't do it and lived, eventually the truth would whittle away the case against them and they would be freed. The FBI didn't want to look foolish-J.Edgar was already wearing dresses to the office. So they were executed according to a new interpretation of treason that was to politicized execution forever. Not unlike the Cheney codicil for torture. The lawyers said it was okay. And Bush confesses that he is not a lawyer, so he felt free to torture and Cheney had already been torturing from the get go and loved it. If not the Rosenbergs then who? Best guess, nobody. The Soviets never had the bomb, up until Bay of Pigs when they sent ships allegedly carry WMDs but actually carrying herring to Cuba and the Nikita's bluff was called. What about all those tests? Yeah. Were you there? Me neither. Did they figure out how to make critical mass. Maybe for a motor on a sub, but all those nuclear ships sank like a stone after irradiating the crews. If they couldn't seal off nuclear fission on a simple engine, then what catastrophe was next? Chernobyl. Occam's Razor gives us the obvious answer: No effing nuclear bombs anywhere in the Soviet Union. Otherwise those maniacs would have used them long ago.
Julius is a dead man. He leaked top secret material. That's an automatic flag on the play with one penalty: death during wartime. Death anytime. Save him for what? To leak more propaganda filled lies. Do you think he really got his hands on the truth, the facts? You are as dumb as the Rosenbergs' lawyer who didn't cop a plea.

My ramblings through the history section have only recently brought me to the anti-German hysteria in the US in WW I, which prompted the espionage legislation.

Mr. Meeropol provides a timely reminder, with many parallels to the 1950's and the present.

Was there an active German espionage network in the US 1914-18; and a Soviet network in the 40s through the 80s? Yes.

Was the fear of espionage exploited as part of a larger movement to suppress dissent? Absolutely. In WWI the targets were Germans. In the 50's the targets were leftists and Jews - a jewish leftist target like the Rosenberg couple providing the best of both worlds. Today the targets are "Islamics" and immigrants.

The execution of Ethyl Rosenberg is characteristic of the frenzy whipped up in these quests for blood. The torments inflicted on Albert Drefyuss in pre WWI France, or on Jews (and Slavs and gypsies and gays and mentally retarded persons) by the nazis follow a similar pattern - horrific violence which serves a hysterical political purpose, and a covert underlying agenda.

My best wishes to you, Mr. Meeropol. You have the power to speak for the tens of thousands of helpless, anonymous victims.

Thank you Robert for this piece of clarity. The media (the propaganda machine) has been whipping up hysteria about Wikileaks in ways that ought by now to be familiar to people. I know they are familiar to you. People were led to believe that soldiers would die because of a devil-may-care data dump by Wikileaks when in fact they were working with five responsible media outlets. Now as Wikileaks threatens to disclose B of A's criminal activities, the corporate media wants us to believe that all our personal banking information will be exposed. We've sen this again and again.

Sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

It was a pleasure to meet you at WriteAngles a few months back. I came home and read your memoir which I found riveting. I will be teaching it at Emerson next year in the graduate program.

Happy New Year, and thanks again for your courage and clarity.

Richard Hoffman

Too few people see the trends in history and think that each notorious case is specific to its time. You make the link between the government use of "laws" created to go after progressives in the years leading up to World I and your parents' era. By showing how these same laws are dusted off and re-used today you help us understand that we should not study all the angles of each case without looking at the connections.
So there is reason to organize against the law-- a a loaded gun sitting in a drawer ready to be pulled out--and not just rally around the individual victim. While fighting solely for the targeted victim, the bad law can be ignored and left to do its mischief again and again.
Carolyn O.

I moved to this country shortly before the Iraq invasion started. It took me roughly 2 days to figure out that the whole affair was a scam, and a bunch of lies; and that the "evidence" presented could not have convinced a reasonably functional 6 years old.
After 10 years, I'm still appalled at the complicit naivete of a huge percentage of individuals in this nation, and their absolute lack of critical thinking. I wish more people would understand how critical for us all it is for them to seek information outside the mainstream media. Civil responsibility is not about like/dislike, or agree/disagree... It is first and foremost about seeking and confronting various, perhaps contradictory, sources of information in order to train our minds to analyze data and think freely.
If Wilikeaks's job ended up in only prompting some people to dare thinking out of the box - or simply thinking, for a a start - it would already deserve our gratitude, and support.

A placard of support for Robert: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1548769995992&set=a.1444825517445...

Manifesto: For over a decade I have been blacklisted and denied the constitutional and inalienable rights of a human being as a FBI Whistleblower patriot. My once meaningful life was converted into an existence of adjunct human slavery within a virtual death camp environment.

Within the first quarter of 2011, I will publish the blackfile summary report that caused the Bush White House to threaten me with assassination and their "invention" of a criminal charge. I was told I will never find employment in America and am seeking asylum outside the nation of my birth.

I support Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Julian Assange has become a targeted individual, because he has unmasked the U.S. government. Beneath the mask of the U.S. government exists the greatest terrorist entity and globalized continuing criminal enterprise threatening the World of Human Beings with systematic systemic genocide for negative eugenics.

Julian Assange is a human brother and those apposing him and his supporters, are war criminals and corporatist capos who perpetuate the agenda of corporate fascism through counterintelligence reverse tactics that have remained in development since CIA MK-ULTRA with the emergence of the CIA Torture Paradigm.

It is the agenda or mission focus of corporatism to process the total aggregate of the world into a commodity.

Bob Levin, Portland, Oregon

It moved me to tears to watch the piece on Democracy Now where you were a guest Mr. Meeropol. I have immense admiration for your courage and strength. Thank you for standing with Assange and WikiLeaks now.

Mr Meeropol thank you so much for being a living witness to your parents' lives. I always viewed their execution as a horrible miscarriage of justice and from my standpoint you deserve an apology and restitution from the U.S. I am so sorry that your parents were taken from you in this way and I can only imagine the horror of this from your family's experience. Thank you for having the courage to write this. You are right.

You have put great power into writing this - hoping that this is not re-lived in our modern day, keeping my fingers crossed.

Thanks for the inspiring message. I hope Americans will find the courage and the strenght to come to the defense of Julian Assange should he be indicted. But how can this be done?

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