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.
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