On today's BradCast: Based on the FBI's unsealed warrant for their recent court-approved search at Mar-a-Lago, we now know that our disgraced former President is being criminally investigated by the Dept. of Justice for violation of at least three federal statutes. One of them --- the one which has arguably received the most headlines --- is the Espionage Act. But that very broad federal statute has been wildly misused by the government over the years to target free political speech and, in modern days, both whistleblowers and journalists. Today, we speak with national security whistleblower Edward Snowden's lead ACLU attorney in hopes of better understanding the controversial law, what's wrong with it, how it needs to be amended, and if it is now properly being applied against Donald Trump. [Audio link to full show follows this summary.]
First up, however, as primary elections are underway in New York, Florida and Oklahoma today (noteworthy results and problem reports for voters on our next 'BradCast'), we wanted to close a loop on a story we reported last week. Anti-abortion activists in Kansas had hoped for a statewide hand recount of the ballot measure for a state constitutional amendment that failed so thoroughly during their primary elections earlier this month. The measure, trounced by about 18 points, would have allowed state Republicans to ban abortion rights in Kansas. Activists vaguely claimed there was evidence of fraud and asked for a hand-count of 9 of the state's largest counties after failing to raise enough money to count the whole state. That hand-count was completed over the weekend and very few votes changed at all. The "Yes" campaign netted an additional 63 votes out of more than 556,000 tallied by hand in those counties.
We've got some thoughts on that hand count to share today, including a response to the Kansas Sec. of State who claims the hand-count "proves once and for all that there is no systemic election fraud in our state's election process" (it doesn't) and for Democrats who decry lawful, public hand-counts --- paid for by challengers, even if they are loony ones --- as undermining our election system. They don't. In fact, they add confidence to it. Tune in for more.
Next, on Monday night, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump stole at least 300 documents marked as classified, many of them said to be incredibly sensitive national security documents. (Contrast that with the total of 3 documents found to have been sent to Hillary Clinton via her private email address marked as classified, for which Trump and his supporters railed to "LOCK HER UP!" for so many years.) All told, it took a year and a half to get those stolen documents back, after a year of negotiation and pleading by the National Archives, a grand jury subpoena from the DoJ, a personal visit to Mar-a-Lago by its top counter-espionage official, and, ultimately, the FBI search earlier this month.
Throughout that time, the paper reports, "Trump went through the boxes himself in late 2021," before failing to turn them all in and, even now, it is unknown if all of the stolen documents have yet been returned. Whether marked as classified or not --- and whether Trump declassified them or not (he didn't) --- it was still illegal for Trump to have any of them in his possession.
The federal search warrant revealed that he is being investigated for, among other things, violation of the Espionage Act. Writing last week at Politico, the Knight First Amendment Institute's Jameel Jaffer, formerly of the ACLU, argued that the Act has been abused over the years in its application against whistleblowers and journalists, such as Chelsea Manning (who released classified documents revealing war crimes by the U.S. Military), Reality Winner (who released a classified document revealing Russia's 2016 breach of U.S. voter registration systems) and, more recently, WikiLeak's Julian Assange.
But, Jaffer writes, while the overly-broad law desperately needs to be amended or even scrapped entirely, its use against Trump appears to be perfectly appropriate.
We're joined today by BEN WIZNER of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. Wizner serves as the principal legal advisor for Edward Snowden, the national security whistleblower who, charged with Espionage Act crimes, is currently living in Russia to avoid prosecution.
Wizner explains the many problems with the more than 100-year old law as it was originally used --- before being somewhat amended decades later --- to prosecute thousands of Americans for legitimate political speech. "In fact, the abuses of the Espionage Act at the outset really had something to do with the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920," he tells me. "It was used by Woodrow Wilson's administration to go after pacifists and anti-war activists, labor activists. Eugene Debs was prosecuted and imprisoned under the Espionage Act. So in its early years, it really is associated with all of the excesses of the first Red Scare and the crackdown on dissent, and immigrants and other radicals." (Debs ultimately ran for President from his prison cell, as Trump may now wish to take note.)
"In it's modern history, the core critique of the Espionage Act has been that it doesn't distinguish between selling the country's secrets to a foreign adversary for personal gain and sharing those same secrets with respected journalists in the public interest," Wizner explains. "In the Snowden case, you have somebody who shared information with news organizations. Those news organizations won the highest awards in journalism, a public interest Pulitzer Prize [based on documents from Snowden.]
But the most egregious part of the Espionage Act, as Wizner notes regarding Snowden's case and his exile abroad: "He's not able to argue, if he's brought to court under this law, that he was acting in the public interest, [and] that in fact the law [was] changed as a result of his actions. All of that would be irrelevant and inadmissible under an Espionage Act prosecution."
In other words, Snowden would be disallowed from even offering a defense for what he did. "The first person ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act for leaks to the press in the public interest, rather than trying to provide secrets to a foreign entity was, of course, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971," Wizner reminds us. (We discussed Snowden's case with Ellsberg on the show back in 2013. Audio and transcript here.)
There is much more to discuss about this bad law and the need to amend it, as several lawmakers from both major parties have long been trying to do. Tune in for that.
As to whether Wizner agrees with his former ACLU colleague, Jaffer, regarding the Espionage Act's correct application against Trump? While he argues "there's no good justification for what Trump did here," Wizner says he is keeping powder dry" regarding Trump's alleged Espionage Act violations. "I am very open to the possibility that when we find out why they cited that statute, I will be a full-throated advocate of what they did in this case. I'm just saying I don't have the information yet to be that full-throated advocate...It matters what those documents were. The fact that they were marked classified is a key fact. I still want to know what was in them."
"I believe Jameel Jaffer is correct that the concerns that the ACLU and other have raised about the Espionage Act are not implicated here," Wizner tells me. "We've been saying you shouldn't equate two different categories --- spies and whistleblowers. What we have here is a third category."
Finally, after some breaking news on President Biden reportedly deciding to forgive up to $10,000 in student loans for some federal borrowers, and Desi Doyen's explanation of how Democrats may have quietly and ingeniously outsmarted both Republicans and their stolen U.S. Supreme Court majority by declaring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to be "pollutants" in their recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, she joins us for our latest Green News Report, as the summer of extreme extreme weather continues...
(Snail mail support to "Brad Friedman, 7095 Hollywood Blvd., #594 Los Angeles, CA 90028" always welcome too!)