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What law protects state secrets?
May 26, 2006 10:05 AM   Subscribe

What law, specifically, is violated if a government official discloses secret information? For example, if a CIA operative told his cousin about an operation that was supposed to be classified, which law is his guilty of breaking?

I understand this is a matter related to treason, but our fictional operative isn't selling secrets to the enemy; he's just blabbering to a relative or friend. I assume this person could be jailed for their actions, but what, exactly, would the charge be? What code, law, or regulation prohibits this kind of loose talk?
posted by jackypaper to Law & Government (7 answers total)
 
One statute is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, 50 USC 421 -- the statute under which those involved in the Plame affair might be convicted. Anyone (not just government officials) can be convicted under the Act.

Sections 421(a) and (b) seems to be targeted towards government officials who have access to classified information and deliberately disclose the identity of a covert agent. On the face of it, it doesn't matter who you disclose to or what your intent was -- could be a friend or an enemy.

The more controversial section is 421(c), which I believe is targeted towards journalists. It specifies that you can be convicted for exposing an agent "in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents." However, that section also require that you have the intent to harm U.S. foreign intelligence operations, unlike the first two sections.
posted by footnote at 11:00 AM on May 26, 2006


That statute seems to apply only to revealing the identity of an agent. What if the matter involves, say, talking about a secret military action, a CIA operation, or some other classified matter?

Example: Imagine I work for a faction of the intelligence community and as part of my job I learn that the U.S. is training native operatives for a possible coup against a foreign despot. This is obviously classified intel. However, I go home and tell the whole story to my wife.

Of what, exactly, am I guilty? What statute have I broken?
posted by jackypaper at 11:10 AM on May 26, 2006


Anyone intentionally granted access to classified information must sign form SF-312, a non-disclosure agreement between the individual and the government instituted under Executive Order 13292. SF-312 authorizes the government to seek civil damages against the individual over and beyond the penalties of law should sensitive information be exposed or confirmed.
Title 18, USC Section 798 is the federal law regarding disclosure of classified information, and specifies penalties up to $10,000 and 10 years in prison per violation. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act specifically applies if the identity of intelligence personnel is compromised. Other categories of information, such as defense articles, public property, and diplomatic codes, are covered under other sections of USC Title 18.
posted by leapfrog at 11:28 AM on May 26, 2006


In the UK, the Official Secrets Act.
posted by Orange Goblin at 12:20 PM on May 26, 2006


I should probably add that all these statutes are additive as well. For example disclosing classified defense information counts as at least four violations (or more, depending on the exact nature of the information), even if you did it once.
1. sec. 798. Disclosed classified information.
2. sec. 793. Disclosed information about a defense item.
Furthermore, gathering the information with the intent to disclose it counts as a seperate offense from the actual disclosure. Each offense counts for $10K and 10 years, so one action earns forty years in Leavenworth. (or somewhere worse.)
If you disclose such information to aid a foreign government, that is treason and is punishable by death under USC title 18 sec. 794.
posted by leapfrog at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2006


Auxiliary question: Let's say you have a high-level security clearance, and through your interactions deduce some piece of classified information you don't have direct need-to-know access to. (Like, "Hey, I think this guy I'm working with in the U.S. Army is actually a CIA employee posing as a soldier.") If you go home and tell your wife, are you committing a crime in this situation?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:07 PM on May 26, 2006


421(c) isn't geared towards journalists, its geared to one man, Phillip Agee, a former CIA agent who wrote a book and several articles which revealed Company secrets.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:03 PM on May 27, 2006


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