On This Day — Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954 (September 3 1954) [2020]

“At first blush, one would say that we are rather naive in expecting somebody trained in espionage to come forward and register. But … you will find under this language it is possible to prosecute people for failure to register.”

Francis E. Walter (D Pa.)House Judiciary Committee

Formed during World War II, the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), was organized for special operations and intelligence gathering and analysis. Included in its mission was the implementation of, and training of foreign forces in, propaganda, espionage, subversion, and sabotage. After the war, OSS functions were transferred to the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” was used by OSS agents in training “citizen-saboteurs” in methods for inciting and executing simple sabotage to thwart industry and other vital functions in Axis-occupied areas.

September 3 2020 — The Espionage and Sabotage Act entered into law on September 3 1954. The Act broadened the definitions of what constitutes “war material” and “national defense material” contained in previous anti-sabotage legislation, and took into account sabotage potentialities through use of radioactive, biological and chemical agents. It also permitted the death penalty for peacetime espionage. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

RELATED POST: This Day In History — US 1918 Sedition Act Repealed (March 3 1921)

RELATED POST: Remembering Sir Roger Casement (1 September 1864 – 3 August 1916) — “Hanged on a Comma”

RELATED POST: United States — The “Intelligence Identities Protection Act” (June 23 1982)

The Espionage Act of 1917 (18 USC § 792 et seq.) is a U.S. federal law passed in June 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It prohibited any attempt to interfere with military operations, to support U.S. enemies during wartime, to promote insubordination in the military, or to interfere with military recruitment.

The law was further strengthened by the Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954, which authorized the death penalty or life imprisonment for espionage or sabotage in peacetime as well as during wartime.

The Act requires agents of foreign governments to register with the U.S. Government. It also suspended the statute of limitations for treason.  In 1958, the scope of the act was broaden to cover Americans engaged in espionage against the U.S. while overseas.

Background –Attorney General Brownell, as part of his effort to tighten security laws, recommended a series of amendments to existing laws which would serve to modernize protection and take into account new weapons of the “cold war.”

Thus, a definition of “war material” subject to previous sabotage laws was expanded to include air and water. This, presumably, took into account potentialities of radioactive, biological and chemical weapons. The definition for “national defense material” was similarly broadened.

Advances in aviation caused Brownell to ask for anti-sabotage law expansion to “airfield and airlanes.” The new sabotage law applied not only within the limits of the United States and upon the high seas, but “elsewhere.” It also brought under the law’s purview attempts to “contaminate or infect” these materials.

Death Penalty — Because of Communist espionage uncovered since 1945, the Attorney General asked also that it be made punishable in peacetime by death “or for any terms of years or for life” imprisonment. The former penalty imposed a maximum of 30 years in jail. In effect, there would be little difference between wartime or peacetime espionage.

Brownell asked also for legislation requiring registration of persons trained for espionage and sabotage, excepting those who had been trained in the U.S. Armed Forces and diplomats. There were many other exceptions. This was rejected by Congress.

COMMENT — You may remember the strange case of Sir Roger David Casement (1 September 1864 – 3 August 1916).

At Casement’s highly publicized trial for high treason, the prosecution had trouble arguing its case. Casement’s crimes had been carried out in Germany and the Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or arguably British) soil.

A ‘creative’ reading of the Act allowed for a broader interpretation: the court decided that a comma should be added to the original Norman-French text, crucially altering the sense of the text so that “in the realm or elsewhere” referred to where acts were done and not just to where the “King’s enemies” might be.

Julian Assange, the Espionage Act and implications for free media

The Assange case isn’t really about him or WikiLeaks anymore. It has implications, serious ones – for journalists just about everywhere.


Sabotage, Espionage — CQ Almanac

Espionage Act of 1917 — Wikipedia

The Espionage Act’s Troubling Origins — Electronic Frontier Foundation


On This Day — Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954 [September 3 1954]

On This Day — Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954 (September 3 1954) [2019]

On This Day — Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954 (September 3 1954) [2020]

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