5 Heroic Truth-Tellers Wrongly Charged with Espionage

Matt Orfalea
6 min readJun 12, 2019

US officials charged Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, with violating the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act. The Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act is one of the most controversial laws in American history. The title suggests it’s used to prosecute espionage but in practice it’s also used to prosecute even the most patriotic Americans for exposing the truth about war and the lies of the government.

Hi, I’m Matt Orfalea and here these are the stories of 5 brave truth-tellers wrongly charged with espionage.

1. Eugene Debs

After the US entered WW1 in 1917, the government passed The Espionage Act, making it a crime to interfere with the war effort or military recruitment — essentially making it illegal to speak out against war.

In 1918 at an Ohio workers rally, famous union leader Eugene Debs delivered a fiery speech denouncing World War 1.

The working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish their corpses have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. If war is right, let it be declared by the people.

For speaking those words, Eugene Debs was arrested, charged with violating the Espionage Act, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. At his trial Debs stated:

“If the Espionage Law stands then the Constitution of the Unites States is dead”.

Debs had such large support of everyday Americans that he was nominated for President of the Unites States and received close to a million votes while in prison.

The Espionage Act’s harsher restrictions were later amended but it continued to be used to prosecute heroic truth tellers.

2. Daniel Ellsberg

A former military analyst and strategic analyst at the government think tank Rand Corp., Ellsberg had access to a top secret study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.

I looked at the origins of the war in the Pentagon Papers and realized it had never been legitimate. There had never been a legitimate basis for us killing Vietnamese and I began to see all that killing as murder. And murder it seemed to me was something that had to be stopped.

Ellsberg leaked the papers to the press revealing truth about the Vietnam War.

Covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections, it’s all in there.

The Pentagon Papers revealed the government had been conducting covert operations in Vietnam for several presidencies unbeknownst the American people; and that the primary reason for continuing the war was not to contain communism, and not to help Vietnam, but to avoid embarrassment.

They knew we couldn’t win and still sent boys to die…If the public ever saw these papers they would turn against the war…

It was worth going to prison if there was even a small chance of shortening the war.

The main ball’s Ellsberg. We got to get this son of a bitch.

Ellsberg became the first person to ever be prosecuted for giving information to the American people.

The American public needed to know this information about how they’d been lied to and how they’d been manipulated into that war.

Under the Espionage Act he faced over 100 years in prison and was not allowed to argue why he leaked the papers to the jury.

With a stroke of luck his case was dismissed due to government misconduct when it was discovered that among other things CIA assets had been ordered to “totally incapacitate” Ellsberg on the steps of the Capitol.

I’ve never appreciated what the meaning of what the separation of powers is so much as this last week.

3. Edward Snowden

Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded

While working for the NSA, Snowden was alarmed to discover the government was operating an warrantless wiretapping program and lying about it.

Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

No, sir.

Seeing that really meant for me there was no going back. It was the creeping realization that no one else was going to do this.

In 2013 Snowden leaked the secret programs’s details to the press.

His revelations proved the director of National Intelligence lied under oath to congress, sparked a dozen bills to reign in unconstitutional surveillance, and led to a U.S. court ruling that the government’s secret collection of American’s private data was in fact illegal.

But a jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear any of that because Snowden was charged with over 100 years under — you guessed it: the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act does not permit a public interest whistleblower defense. Those charged under it are silenced by law. They are prohibited from exercising their right from telling the jury why they acted, in their belief, to protect the constitution or the public interest.

This World War 1 era law does not distinguish between those who freely give critical information to journalists in the public interest or spies who sell it to a foreign power for their own.

If I am a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists, who were reporting on American issues.

Snowden is currently living in asylum overseas but hopes to someday be able to return home to the U.S.

I love my country. I love my family. But under the Espionage Act it is not possible to receive a fair trial.

4. Chelsea Manning

You can’t trust government to be benevolent all the time. The assumption is that institutions are functioning and they will only do what they’re supposed to do but this just isn’t the case.

In 2010, Manning, a military analyst in Iraq, leaked the most classified documents to the press since Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

The material exposed many unflattering truths about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other things, the disclosures revealed 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths; that the US was complicit in torture, violating the Geneva Convention; and a video of an Apache helicopter crew laughing while gunning down unarmed journalists.

Oh ya look at those dead bastards. Haha!

It was just another day…There are thousands and thousands of videos like that.

For informing the public and uncovering war crimes (for which nobody has ever punished) Manning was charged under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentence after serving seven years, which is the most time served by any whistleblower in US history.

She is currently back in prison for refusing to testify against the journalist to whom she leaked the materials, Julian Assange.

5. Julian Assange

Assange is an award winning journalist and the founder of Wikileaks, a non-profit organization that publishes news leaks. For over a decade, Assange and Wikileaks have informed the public by uncovering corporate and governments corruption all around the world. But Assange is currently being charged with up to 170 years in prison under the Espionage Act, making him the first journalist under the Act.

The Trump administration’s indictment against Assange argues he "repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information" deemed "classified" by U.S. government. In other words, he’s facing a life sentence for practicing journalism.

If Assange can be charged with espionage for seeking and sharing classified information that informed the public and didn’t harm anyone, then there’s nothing to stop the criminalization of every other media outlet that does the same work.

The freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are at stake so people need to put aside their personal feeling about Wikileaks and Assange.

People think that what you’re trying to do is sabotage the workings of government.

No we are not that type of activists. We are free press activists.

It’s not about saving the whales. It’s about giving people the information they need to support whaling or not support whaling. Why? That is the raw ingredient that is needed for a just and civil society and without that you’re just sailing in the dark.

In order to prevent American from slipping back into the dark past where speaking the truth is illegal, the government must stop prosecuting heroic truth-tellers with espionage.

And of course:

Publishers must be free to publish.

I’m Matt Orfalea. Thanks for watching.

If I and other whistleblowers are sentenced to long years in prison without so much as a chance to explain our motivations to a jury it will have a deeply chilling effect on future whistleblowers, working as I did to expose government abuse and overreach.

The new interpretation of the Espionage Act that the Pentagon is trying to hammer in would mean the end of national security journalism.

The public needs to know truths about government crimes or lies to act as a democracy.

It’s about all of us and I hope that together, we’ll stay free. Thank you very much.