Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Julian Assange, the Rosenberg Case and the Espionage Act of 1917

Julian Assange, the Rosenberg Case and the Espionage Act of 1917


By Robert Meeropol


Rosenberg Fund for Children




Rumors are swirling that the United States is preparing

to indict Wikileaks leader Julian Assange for

conspiring to violate the Espionage Act of 1917. The

modern version of that act states among many, many

other things that: "Whoever, for the purpose of

obtaining information respecting the national defense

with intent or reason to believe that the information

is to be used to the injury of the United States"

causes the disclosure or publication of this material,

could be subject to massive criminal penalties. It also

states that: "If two or more persons conspire to

violate any of the foregoing provisions ... each of the

parties to such conspiracy shall be subject to the

punishment provided for the offense which is the object

of such conspiracy." (18 U.S. Code, Chapter 37, Section 793.)


I view the Espionage Act of 1917 as a lifelong nemesis.

My parents were charged, tried and ultimately executed

after being indicted for Conspiracy to Commit Espionage

under that act.


The 1917 Act has a notorious history. It originally

served to squelch opposition to World War I. It

criminalized criticism of the war effort, and sent

hundreds of dissenters to jail just for voicing their

opinions. It transformed dissent into treason.


Many who attacked the law noted that the framers of the

Constitution had specifically limited what constituted

treason by writing it into the Constituton: "Treason

against the United States shall consist only in levying

war against them, or in adhering to their enemies,

giving them aid and comfort" (Article III, section 3).

The framers felt this narrow definition was necessary

to prevent treason from becoming what some called "the

weapon of a political faction."  Furthermore, in their

discussions at the Constitutional Convention they

agreed that spoken opposition was protected by the

First Amendment and could never be considered treason.


It appears obvious that the Espionage Act is

unconstitutional because it does exactly what the

Constitution prohibits. It is, in other words, an

effort to make an end run around the Treason Clause of

the Constitution. Not surprisingly, however, as we've

seen in times of political stress, the Supreme Court

upheld its validity in a 5-4 decision. Although later

decisions seemed to criticize and limit its scope, the

Espionage Act of 1917 has never been declared

unconstitutional. To this day, with a few notable

exceptions that include my parents' case (read more

about the Rosenberg case at http://www.rfc.org/therosenbergcase),

it has been a dormant sword of Damocles, awaiting the right political

moment and an authoritarian Supreme Court to spring to

life and slash at dissenters.


It is no accident that Julian Assange may face a

"conspiracy" charge just as my parents did. All that is

required of the prosecution to prove a conspiracy is to

present evidence that two or more people got together

and took one act in furtherance of an illegal plan. It

could be a phone call or a conversation.


In my parents' case the only evidence presented against

my mother was David and Ruth Greenglasses' testimony

that she was present at a critical espionage meeting

and typed up David's handwritten description of a

sketch. Although this testimony has since been shown to

be false, even if it were true, it would mean that the

government of the United States executed someone for typing.


But the reach of "conspiracy" is even more insidious.

It means that ANYONE with whom my parents could have

discussed their actions and politics could have been

swept up and had similar charges brought against them

if someone testified that those conversations included

plans to commit espionage. Thus, the case against my

parents was rightly seen by many in their political

community of rank and file Communist Party Members as a

threat to them all.


Viewing the Wikileaks situation through this lens, it

becomes apparent why the government would seek to

charge Assange with conspiracy. Not only Assange, but

anyone involved in the Wikileaks community could be

swept up in a dragnet. Just as in my parents' case, the

prosecutors could seek to bully some involved into

ratting out others, in return for more favorable

treatment. This divide and conquer approach would turn

individuals against each other, sow the seeds of

distrust within the broader community, and intimidate

others into quiescence.


This kind of attack threatens every left wing activist.

I urge all progressives to come to the defense of

Julian Assange should he be indicted for violating the

Espionage Act of 1917.


Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius

Rosenberg. In 1953, when he was six years old, the

United States Government executed his parents for

"conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb."

Since 1990 he has served as the Executive Director of

the Rosenberg Fund for Children (www.rfc.org), a

non-profit, public foundation that provides for the

educational and emotional needs of both targeted

activist youth and children in this country whose

parents have been harassed, injured, jailed, lost jobs

or died in the course of their progressive activities.



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