The Espionage Act | Study Guide

United States Congress

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Espionage Act Study Guide." Course Hero. 26 July 2019. Web. 11 Aug. 2022. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, July 26). The Espionage Act Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "The Espionage Act Study Guide." July 26, 2019. Accessed August 11, 2022.


Course Hero, "The Espionage Act Study Guide," July 26, 2019, accessed August 11, 2022,

The Espionage Act | Quotes


Whoever ... obtains information, concerning any vessel, aircraft, work of defense, navy yard, naval station, submarine base, coaling station ... telegraph, telephone, wireless.

This part of the law exhaustively lists critical U.S. war infrastructure and equipment. It shows how by 1917 the critical materials of warfare had changed, marking the transition to the 20th century with its technological and industrial means of making war. Aircraft were at the time a very new technology. This passage thus describes, as completely as it can, the materials and infrastructure that the law is meant to protect. It is a crime to record details about these items, because their numbers, design, and location might be of advantage to an enemy.


Whoever, with intent ... to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation.

This passage defines the act of espionage as the knowing transmission of critical information with the express purpose of harming U.S. interests or boosting the interests of another nation. These other nations are only defined as "foreign," and no mention in this passage is made of a state of war or even a rivalry. Espionage is thus defined as an act intended to harm the United States whether it is currently at war or not—aiding another nation at the expense of the United States.


Delivers ... or induces another to ... to any foreign government, or to any faction or party or military or naval force within a foreign country.

Espionage is a crime whether you do it yourself or cause another to do so. With this, the law could be used to round up spy networks, not just individual cases of espionage. The recipients of material are defined very broadly. They are foreign governments but also agents and divisions of those governments. It also does not matter whether the foreign entity is officially recognized by the United States as such. It should be seen that the crime of espionage is thus defined very broadly and is open to equally broad interpretation by those enforcing it.


In time of war shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for not more than thirty years.

The preceding sections, which defined the crime of espionage under any circumstances, are modified by this clause, which deals specifically with a situation of war between the United States and another nation. In this case, the penalties increase. One of these is the death penalty. Thus, while espionage is always a crime, it is punished more severely in wartime because of the direct effect such activity might have on the conduct of a war.


Whoever ... [has] with intent ... [to communicate] to the enemy ... information with respect to the movement, numbers, description, condition, or disposition of any of the armed forces.

This passage deals directly with information. Specifically, it describes information about the position, strength, and movement of military forces in wartime. These forces might be in a foreign country or they might be at home. This further reflects the increasingly wide array of military forces available to the United States, which now included submarines, aircraft, telegraph lines, and so on. As with other passages, this definition of information is very broad. It is not only prohibited to communicate about movements and numbers; "description" alone will break the law.


Whoever ... [has] with intent ... [to communicate] to the enemy ... information ... with respect to the plans or conduct ... or... works or measures ... or any other information relating to the public defense.

This passage deals specifically with measures taken to defend the territory of the United States itself. It deals with physical properties such as fortifications, as well as information about national defense plans. This is preparation to guard against the prospect of a foreign attack on U.S. soil, both in the immediate context of World War I and for the future. At the time, such an attack was not a far-fetched idea, as the United States had entered the war, in part, in reaction to a proposed alliance between Germany and Mexico that would have involved a Mexican invasion of the United States.


Whoever ... shall willfully make or convey false reports ... to interfere with ... the success of the military or naval forces.

The law turns from the communication of information and plans to the spread of disinformation, or false reports intended to harm war operations and morale. Espionage thus includes actions intended to sow mischief in the United States and among its armed forces, not just on the reporting of secrets. The crime here consists not just of making "false reports" but also in spreading them. It is only a crime if this is done "willingly," but it again gives law enforcement broad authority to investigate what it deems to be a "false report."


Whoever ... shall willfully cause ... insubordination, mutiny, refusal of duty ... or ... obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service.

This passage deals with interfering with recruitment to the armed forces and attempts to encourage soldiers to refuse to do as they are told or even to rebel. Rebellions among soldiers had helped to topple the regime of the Russian czar earlier in 1917, an event that caused consternation in many Western countries. Criminalizing the obstruction of recruitment was controversial. This measure was used to imprison organizers against the war and against the drafting of men into the armed forces. This hardline approach was partly rooted in the fact that the United States had been staunchly neutral for the first part of World War I. The Wilson administration needed to change public opinion swiftly; it took strong action to do, including infringing on civil liberties.


If two or more persons conspire to violate the provisions of section two or three of this title.

This gives the enforcers of the law grounds to charge people for conspiracy to commit offenses. This construction of a "conspiracy" charge gives authorities broad grounds to investigate, detain, and charge people and groups before any acts of espionage have been committed. It allows investigators to take a proactive approach to enforcement and also allows multiple people to be charged for the same offense, whether the evidence against them is as strong as it is for other "conspirators." Sections 2 and 3 are the sections that deal primarily with the chief crimes of espionage and espionage during wartime.


Whoever harbors or conceals any person who he knows, or has reasonable grounds to believe or suspect.

Here, harboring those who have "committed, or [are] about to commit" is itself criminalized. It is reasonable to expect that harboring spies would be a crime, but the language here makes this a very broad category of crime. People can be charged with this offense if they harbor people they have "reasonable grounds to believe or suspect" has committed or will commit an act of espionage. This is an inducement to the public to accuse people close to them of spying, because if they have "reasonable grounds to ... suspect" a person is a spy and they harbor or shelter that person, then they themselves can be charged with a crime.


The President in time of war or in case of national emergency may by proclamation designate ... a prohibited place.

This passage gives the president extraordinary powers to declare places within the United States as out of bounds for civilians to enter. Anyone in those places could be charged as a spy. This provision is limited by the constraint that it can only happen in wartime or in case of "national emergency." The potentially broad definition of a national emergency, however, means that this provides the president, personally, with powers to declare by proclamation that certain places in the United States are "prohibited" to the general public.


Provided, that he shall determine that information ... would be prejudicial to the national defense.

A further potential limitation on the president's power to proclaim certain areas "prohibited" here is provided. The president must determine that such a move is made to protect information that might be critical to the national defense. While this is perhaps a limitation on the president's power, because it limits the scope of the power to dealing with matters of military necessity, it still leaves the decision in the president's hands alone. If the president can determine that such a move is necessary, there is not a provision in the law that this decision be scrutinized by any other body.


Nothing ... in this title shall ... limit the jurisdiction of the general courts-martial, military commissions, or naval courts-martial.

This passage makes it clear that the Espionage Act is a civil law, to be applied to civilians. The "general courts-martial" and other examples given are the military courts that oversee cases brought against members of the military. They have their own rules and punishments for espionage, and this law does not apply to them.


The provisions of this title shall extend to all Territories, possessions, and places subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

This passage provides the extent of the act, which covers the United States itself and all of its territories and other possessions. It would apply in wartime to a place in the temporary command of the United States, such as a part of a foreign country controlled by the U.S. armed forces (this place would be "subject to the jurisdiction of the United States"). This means that the law is applicable to anyone living in a place subject to the laws of the United States, whether they are U.S. citizens or not.


The Act entitled "An Act to prevent the disclosure of national defense secrets," ... is hereby repealed.

The law referred to here is the Defense Secrets Act of 1911, which is repealed (and replaced) by the Espionage Act. The Espionage Act supersedes this older law and in fact contains much of the language from the Defense Secrets Act, modified for the new situation in 1917 (specifically the entry of the United States into World War I). This passage makes it clear that the wording and provisions of the old law no longer apply and are replaced by this newer law, to prevent confusion.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Espionage Act? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!