National Intelligence counsel favors tossing Espionage Act

The Second General Counsel of the Office of the Director of  National Intelligence Robert Litt.
The Second General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt.

The Second General Counsel of the Office of the Director of  National Intelligence said Friday it was time to “throw out” the so-called Espionage Act in favor of more modernized laws to deal with whistleblowers and other emerging security issues.

“It is an artifact of the way the U.S. code is structured,” Robert Litt told the audience at the “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?” conference hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College “It was written in 1919 and accreted on.”

The act was not meant to be used against whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, whose keynote, via satellite from Russia, preceded Litt's talk. “It deserves to be thrown out and started again,” the attorney said. “It's worth having a discussion of what it should look like.”

But Litt did not give Snowden, who had mentioned the attorney in his address, a pass for leaking classified documents to the press, noting that claims of being motivated by a good cause to blow the whistle shouldn't be considered a good defense.  Litt said that using motive as a defense in these cases would open the door to excusing others from their actions.  “That's a slippery slope and not a feasible way to have a rule of law,” he said, of letting “individuals decide what is and isn't in the public interest.”

Snowden earlier had reiterated his assertions that he would come back the United States if he could be guaranteed an fair trial in open court and Litt countered that if Snowden wanted to come back to the U.S. he could.

While the lawyer said the only thing new that emerged from the Snowden revelations was the names of the companies that cooperated with government requests, he did say government could have been more forthcoming about NSA spying.  “PRISM was clear in statute and was debated in Congress,” said Litt, adding that “some of what came out should have come out before.”

Litt prefaced his remarks by declaring that “no one would be disagree on the notion of privacy but privacy has never been an absolute.”

He drew applause near the end of his talk when he said “you don't want to leave it to Dick Cheneys of the world.”

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