CRS Report – Criminal Prohibitions on Leaks and Other Disclosures of Classified Defense Information. Updated May 11, 2023 – “High-profile leaks and disclosures of protected government information have prompted frequent congressional interest in the criminal penalties for disclosing government secrets. In one recent case, a U.S. Air National Guardsman allegedly posted photographs on social media of documents that, according to media outlets, contained classified information about the Russia-Ukraine war and other international affairs. No single statute criminalizes all unauthorized disclosure of protected government information. Rather, the legal framework is based on a complex and often overlapping set of statutes or individual provisions within statutes, which are outlined in this report. Criminal prosecutions arising from unauthorized disclosures frequently focus on the Espionage Act, with specific charges varying based on certain factors. Successful prosecutions can result in punishments ranging from severe penalties and imprisonment for “classic spying” cases (when an individual collects information in an effort to provide aid to a foreign government) to less severe penalties for cases such as failing to report that protected information has been mishandled or lost. Historically, the United States has prosecuted under the Espionage Act and related statutes (1) individuals with access to classified information (and a corresponding obligation to protect it) who make it available to foreign agents and (2) foreign agents who obtain classified information unlawfully while present in the United States. The United States has also prosecuted individuals claiming an altruistic desire to expose protected information to the public based on their belief that the public good favors transparency into particular government activities. While not every prosecution against an alleged “whistleblower” has been successful, no individual has been acquitted on the grounds that the public interest in the leaked information was so significant as to justify an otherwise unlawful disclosure. Some have questioned whether the Espionage Act covers only initial disclosure of protected information or whether it also criminalizes the receipt and publication of that information by third parties, such as the press. The United States has never prosecuted a traditional news organization for receiving and publicizing leaked information, but it has extended its prosecution efforts to the individual not responsible for the initial disclosure. This report examines prosecutions of individuals who leak information to the press or policy organizations, such as lobbying groups and think tanks, as well as civil and criminal actions that have been brought against the recipients of leaked information. Prosecutions and legal proceedings arising out of leaks may also implicate First Amendment issues regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At the same time, exposure of protected information may harm U.S. national security. Because these cases can raise First Amendment concerns regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the constitutional framework relevant to prosecutions and other legal proceedings filed as a result of leaked classified information is also analyzed in this report, discussing ways Members of Congress who are evaluating criminal prohibitions on disclosures of protected information may seek to balance these competing interests within the constitutional framework. Lastly, this report provides a summary of previous legislative efforts to criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and to address potential gaps or ambiguities in current statutes. Members may also consider past proposals for legislative changes to the Espionage Act.”
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