Discussions of the Espionage Act usually focus on the public’s conception of “spying.” Spies steal information that their government seeks to keep secret and disclose that information to other governments. A common acronym, “MICE,” describes the common motivations for spying: money, ideology, compromise, and ego.
The Espionage Act, however, covers a broader set of conduct that can compromise U.S. national security. The original Act, enacted as the United States entered the First World War, included the precursors to prohibitions against undisclosed foreign-government activities in the United States.
The Espionage Act also prohibits taking or possessing national security-related information from the government and keeping it in an unauthorized location. This article explains how some criminal law protections for national security information interact with Executive Branch decisions to protect information based on national security concerns, and how those protections apply in cases where a defendant stole and kept national security information, even if the defendant did not disclose that information to an unauthorized recipient.
To the uninitiated, taking national security information from its authorized location and keeping it in an unauthorized location may seem like a ministerial or administrative violation without much substantive consequence. But to the national security professional—and to the national security professional’s counterparts in adversarial services—such theft constitutes a profound compromise of security.
Authorized locations for the storage of national security information are approved because they are secure and because they facilitate the government’s control over, and tracking of, individuals who access that information—for example, as then-Assistant Attorney General John Demers stated, when Nghia Hoang Pho stole highly classified information and retained it at an unauthorized location, he “placed at risk our intelligence community’s capabilities and methods, rendering some of them unusable.”Continue reading Willfulness and the Harm of Unlawful Retention of National Security Information