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What Is Espionage?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 14, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Over the weekend, an Iranian court convicted Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian of espionage. But what exactly did he do, and what exactly constitutes espionage?

Rezaian's trial was entirely secret, although accusations involve giving the U.S. government information on Iranian companies that were violating the country's trade embargo. Would this classify as espionage in the United States?

The Law

Espionage is a federal crime defined under the Espionage Act of 1917. The majority of the law's provisions deal with the gathering and transmitting of military defense and other classified information. Passed just after the U.S. entered World War I, the Espionage Act was designed to protect military secrets and operations, and prohibit cooperating with foreign governments.

Federal espionage laws prohibit the unauthorized gathering of national defense information, the intentional copying or dissemination of that information, and the accidental loss or disclosure of that information. The statute also has a section specifically protecting National Aeronautics and Space Administration regulations and any "laboratory, station, base or other facility, or part thereof, or any aircraft, missile, spacecraft, or similar vehicle" belonging to NASA.

The Legality

Many people have challenged the constitutionality of federal espionage laws, mostly on First Amendment and freedom of speech grounds. Charles Schenck was convicted of espionage and conspiracy under the Espionage Act for distributing leaflets to draft-eligible men urging them to resist conscription into service in 1917.

In Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, saying, famously:

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

Since then, espionage laws and the majority of espionage convictions have been held to be constitutional.

Espionage charges are serious -- one of the few for which you can be executed. If you've been charged with espionage, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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