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.

To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together,
subscribe now.

Support Bradley Manning

Last week I joined the Advisory Board of the Bradley Manning Support Network. I sought them out not only because it is a honor to join a Board that includes Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, as well as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, and filmmaker Michael Moore, among others, but also because I believe it is imperative for as many people as possible to raise their voices in support of Manning.

Private First Class Manning is accused of being the source of the huge number of secret diplomatic cables, field intelligence reports, and at least one military video published by WikiLeaks. He was held without charge for nine months in the brig at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, isolated for 23 hours a day in “Maximum Custody and under Prevention of Injury Watch.” I believe that the conditions of his imprisonment, including the Abu Ghraib style humiliation of being forced to strip and surrender his clothing nightly, amounted to torture. Manning’s rights were violated further when President Obama, the military’s commander in chief, declared Manning guilty. Since Manning faces a possible court martial by military officers, all of whom are under Obama’s command, this makes it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.

I have several reasons to aid Private Manning.

The first is my commitment to the concept of Freedom of Information. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned and threatened with death for providing the truth to the American people. In the words of Daniel Ellsberg: “If Bradley Manning did what he’s accused of, then he’s a hero of mine.” The free flow of information is absolutely essential to a functioning democracy. Since 2001, the burgeoning “National Security State” has made it almost impossible for voters to make informed choices.

The people’s right to know what their government is doing has been at the core of my activism for almost four decades. It was no accident that my brother and I chose to sue under the newly toughened Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when we commenced our campaign to reopen our parents’ case in 1974. Reporters asked if we were worried that the material in the government’s files we sought would point to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt rather than their innocence. We answered without hesitation that while we hoped the material would exonerate our parents, the public’s right to know was more important than the vindication of our beliefs. My brother and I spent 10 years of our lives fighting that case in the name of the public’s right to know. The attack on Bradley Manning is an assault upon this right and must be resisted.

Also, I am virtually certain that the cruel and inhumane conditions Manning was subjected to in the Marine Base brig were designed to coerce him into testifying against Julian Assange and the Wikileaks community. In other words, the government wanted Manning to become the David Greenglass of the Wikileaks case. In my parent’s case the government offered David Greenglass a deal in return for falsely testifying that my parents engineered Greenglass’s theft of what the government called “the secret of the Atomic bomb,” even though my parents did not participate in that theft and there was no such secret. Similarly, the government sought to use Manning as a pawn to spark a conspiracy trail against Julian Assange and his associates in order to expand the security state and inflame public fear that hackers threaten our national security.

Finally, it is reported that Bradley Manning may be charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, and face the death penalty if he is convicted. That’s the same penalty my parents received for violating that act.

Under such circumstances, how could I stay away! For more information about the Bradley Manning support network go to: http://www.bradleymanning.org/

To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.


Treason Revisited

The subject of treason came up in a rerun of the television series I was watching last week.   Naturally, the heroes got involved in foiling a terrorism plot.  While being given classified government information during a briefing they were told that if they divulge anything about it they would be committing treason.  I didn’t think anything of this at the time, perhaps because recently I’ve heard similar statements on several other TV shows.

Later that night it dawned on me:  “Since when does divulging classified information constitute treason?”   I’ve studied what is defined as treason under the United States legal system because many people mistakenly believe my parents were charged with Treason rather than Conspiracy to Commit Espionage.  I addressed the definition in my memoir, An Execution in the Family:

“Treason and politics are inextricably entwined….  The Founding Fathers recognized this and defined the crime in our Constitution to minimize its potential abuse for political purposes.  The Constitution defines treason as follows:  ‘Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort,’ ” (page 271).

Nothing in this definition includes revealing classified information.  It could be argued that doing so aids the enemy, but prior court rulings have made it clear that a defendant must give aid directly.  In other words, you can’t commit treason merely by publishing classified information.  This is probably why Bradley Manning was not charged with treason.  (My parents weren’t charged with treason because, among other things, they were accused of aiding the USSR when it was our ally during World War II.)

I wonder whether the repeated broadcast of this erroneous definition of treason is part of a government propaganda campaign to demonize those who disclose classified information.  My suspicions are aroused because I’m aware that the government has influenced the content of television shows since the McCarthy period.  Such a campaign today would fit together well with the massive expansion of what is considered classified which began during the Bush administration.  It also fits perfectly with the Obama administration’s prosecution of Bradley Manning, who like my parents is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, but is portrayed by government officials as a terrorist.

The attack on those who divulge previously secret government information goes beyond Bradley Manning.  Here’s what Christopher Hedges wrote in Truthdig on May 19th in response to the recent “AP scandal”:

“Seizing the AP phone logs is part of the corporate state’s broader efforts to silence all voices that defy the official narrative…. The person or persons who provided the classified information to the AP will, if arrested, most likely be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. That law was never intended when it was instituted in 1917 to silence whistle-blowers. And from 1917 until Barack Obama took office in 2009 it was employed against whistle-blowers only three times, the first time against Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Espionage Act has been used six times by the Obama administration against government whistle-blowers….The government’s fierce persecution of the press—an attack pressed by many of the governmental agencies that are arrayed against WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and activists such as Jeremy Hammond—dovetails with the government’s use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to carry out the assassination of U.S. citizens; of the FISA Amendments Act, which retroactively makes legal what under our Constitution was once illegal—the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of tens of millions of U.S. citizens; and of Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the government to have the military seize U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them in indefinite detention….”

Given this, is it so far-fetched to believe that the government might also be attempting to brainwash the public using primetime television?  Of course, crime shows seldom accurately reflect the constitutional rights of defendants, so it is possible that misrepresenting what actions constitute treason is not part of a conscious government plan.

However, we’re unlikely to discover if my suspicions are justified anytime soon.  This is especially so because any such campaign is probably classified and anyone who exposes it would likely be charged under the Espionage Act and treated as if he or she were a traitor.

To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.


For Bradley Manning

I feel a kinship with Bradley Manning.  In all likelihood a few weeks from now a military judge will sentence him to serve several decades in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were convicted of violating the same act and executed just over 60 years ago when I was six years old.  But that’s only the beginning of my sense of connection with him.  The prosecutors, and now the judge, have labeled Manning’s actions espionage, theft and several other unsavory terms.  Stripped of the pejorative legal expressions, however, what Manning really did, in the simplest words, was to reveal the truth of our government’s actions to the American people and the world.

In 1975, my brother and I began our effort to reopen our parents’ case by filing a massive, precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act suit against 17 government agencies.  Reporters asked us if we were concerned that the material we sought would merely prove our parents’ guilt.  We answered that we believed that the public had the right to know what was in the secret files even if it did not support our belief that our parents had been framed.

The idea that citizens should know what the government is doing in their name remains one of the cornerstones of my beliefs to this day.  This is the only way people can make knowledgeable judgments which are essential to a functioning democracy.   Bradley Manning wrote shortly before his arrest: “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public,” http://www.nationofchange.org/moral-verdict-bradley-manning-conviction-love-action-1375276458.

Some think Manning is a traitor.  After all, he released material that embarrassed our government and might put us at a disadvantage when dealing with other nations.  I think the idea that we should elevate the interests of our country above those of all others, at a time when many nations in our world bristle with weapons of mass destruction, threatens the security of every person on the planet.

My parents placed their faith in the USSR, a nation they felt represented the interests of the working class, which they believed included the vast majority of the world’s people.  I think they were misguided.  I’ve come to believe that while some countries are a lot better than others, none have evolved to the point where they deserve uncritical support. While I do not reflexively reject the application of all state power, my primary identification is with humanity as a whole.

Bradley Manning also wrote: “I can’t separate myself from others” and he continued “I feel connected to everybody … like they were distant family.”  So Bradley Manning who feels an affinity with all people, believes we all should know the truth, and was so appalled by our war crimes in Iraq that he felt compelled to act, will go to jail.  Meanwhile those who grease the wheels of the most destructive killing machines the world has ever known, think it is too dangerous for us to know the truth, and label millions of others the enemy, continue as our rulers.

In the wake of Tuesday’s verdict I wish all the world’s armies were made up of people like Bradley Manning.  Our planet would be a much better place if that were the case. And I hope Bradley takes comfort from the many people around the globe who see him as their hero.

To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.