The Espionage Act Excluded Censorship

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Post was right about the "dangerous road" Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has embarked upon in suggesting that he would be enforcing the will of Congress, expressed in the Espionage Act of 1917, if he prosecuted journalists or others outside government for publishing classified information [editorial, May 23].

If the attorney general believes that what the editorial termed a "moribund World War I-era espionage law" provides the basis for such prosecution, he should read the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book "Secrecy." Mr. Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, having just completed two years as chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, undertook an exhaustive review of the legislative history of the Espionage Act.

He found that, while President Woodrow Wilson and some of the congressional leadership wanted the press to face explicit penalties for publishing classified information, this "set off a storm of Congressional controversy" and became the subject of weeks of intense review and debate.

Despite a letter from the president saying that "it seems to me imperative that powers of this sort should be granted," the Senate refused. The heroes of press freedom were Sens. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Hiram Johnson of California and William Borah of Idaho -- Republicans all. As Mr. Moynihan wrote, "Despite Wilson's last-minute lobbying, the Espionage Act did not contain the censorship provision."

Many years ago Mr. Moynihan quipped that everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. The current attorney general ought to dig further before uttering his "facts" about using an old statute to go after journalists exercising their First Amendment rights.


Deputy Washington Director and Senior Counsel

Human Rights First


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