The federal government may use espionage laws to prosecute private citizens who gain access to national defense information, a federal judge ruled yesterday. The Los Angeles Times said the decision appears to be the first in which a court has found that citizens other than government employees can be charged for receiving and disclosing secret government information. “It’s a momentous ruling with radical implications,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “A lot of people who are in the business of gathering information, such as reporters and advocates, are now going to have to grapple with the potential threat of prosecution. The dividing line has always been between leakers, who may be prosecuted, and the recipients of the leak, who have never been. Now that dividing line has been erased.”
The ruling is a victory for the Bush administration, which has been trying to clamp down on media disclosures of anti-terrorism programs since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Legal experts said it could chill the ability of a broad segment of the public – including lobbyists, academics, and journalists – to learn about the inner workings of government and expose misconduct or controversial programs of public interest. The ruling by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Va., clears the way for the trial of two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.