Ninety six years ago on September the 12th 1918, Eugene V Debs was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 for a speech he gave in Canton, OH on June 16th, 1918. Eugene Debs was aware of the recently passed (May 16th, 1918) Sedition Act, and carefully crafted his remarks such that he did not use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that would caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. (From the Sedition Act of 1918)
Yet the government, in Federal Court in Cleveland, OH convinced a jury to convict Eugene Debs on 4 of the original 10 counts in the indictment: the causing of in-subordination in the armed forces, the obstruction of enlistment and conscription services, the incitement to resistance, and the opposition to the cause of the United States. At his sentence hearing Eugene Debs made this statement to the court. His statement starts with these words:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
If the law under which I have been convicted is a good law, then there is no reason why sentence should not be pronounced upon me. I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions.
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to [the] form of our present Government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believed in the change of both— but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means.
Toward the end of Deb’s statement he said this:
Your Honor, I ask no mercy. I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom.
I can see the dawn of a better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due course they will come to their own.
– Eugene Debs, September 18, 1918
The Sedition Act of 1918 (an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917) was repealed by the Congress of the United States on December 13, 1920.
Eugene Debs sentence was commuted by President Warren G. Harding on December 23, 1921 – effectively releasing him on Christmas Day two days later. Eugene Debs had served one and a half years of his ten year sentence.
The Espionage Act of 1917 is still in effect – President Barack Obama’s Justice department has pursued prosecution of 7 people under this law.
Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, a former CIA agent was indicted under the Act in January 2011 for alleged unauthorized disclosure of national defense information to James Risen, a New York Times reporter. Arrested January 6, 2011, Sterling was sentenced May 11th, 2015 to 42 months in prison.
Thomas Andrews Drake, an official with the National Security Agency, was indicted (April 2010) under 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) for alleged willful retention of national defense information. Charges Dropped.
Shamai K. Leibowitz, a translator for the FBI, admitted sharing information with a blogger and pleaded guilty (May 2010) under 18 U.S.C. § 798(a)(3) to one count of disclosure of classified information. As part of a plea bargain, he was sentenced to a 20 month prison term.
Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a contractor for the State Department and a specialist in nuclear proliferation, (February 7, 2014) entered a guilty plea to a single felony count of disclosing classified national defense information to an unauthorized person, Fox News reporter James Rosen. Kim was sentenced to a 13 month prison term.
Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, the United States Army Private First Class accused of the largest leak of state secrets in U.S. history, was charged under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which incorporates parts of the Espionage Act 18 U.S.C. § 793(e). On July 30, 2013, following a judge-only trial by court-martial lasting eight weeks, Army judge Colonel Denise Lind convicted Manning on six counts of violating the Espionage Act, among other infractions. Manning was sentenced to a 35 year prison term.
John Kiriakou, former CIA officer and later Democratic staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was charged (January 2012) under the Act with leaking information to journalists about the identity of undercover agents, including one who was allegedly involved in waterboarding interrogations of al-Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubaydah. Kiriakou was sentenced (January 25, 2013) to a 30 month prison term.
Edward Snowden, a NSA contractor was charged (June 2013) under the Espionage Act after releasing documents exposing the NSA’s PRISM Surveillance Program. Specifically, he was charged with “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person”. Snowden is a fugitive from the United States – his passport has been revoked – he is living in an undisclosed location in Russia under a 3 year residency permit.