March 05, 2020

Wyden and Khanna Introduce Bill to Protect Whistleblowers, Ensure Journalists Aren’t Targeted for Publishing Classified Information

Bill reforms Espionage Act to protect First Amendment rights against abusive prosecutions and expand avenues for whistleblowers to report government wrongdoing

Washington, D.C. As the Trump-Barr Justice Department increasingly targets whistleblowers and political enemies, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., today introduced the Espionage Act Reform Act to rewrite the hundred-year-old law governing when reporters and whistleblowers can be prosecuted for discussing government secrets.

The Wyden-Khanna legislation reaffirms First Amendment protections for journalists who publish classified information, and ensures whistleblowers can effectively report waste, fraud and abuse to Congress.

“In America we don’t prosecute journalists for what they write – especially when it comes to how the government may be weaponizing the intelligence agencies for political gain,” Wyden said. “The Espionage Act currently provides sweeping powers for a rogue attorney general like Bill Barr or unscrupulous president like Donald Trump to target journalists and whistleblowers who reveal information they’d rather keep secret. This bill ensures only personnel with security clearances can be prosecuted for improperly revealing classified information.”

“The Espionage Act was written over 100 years ago to protect our country against spies, not journalists,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17). “The Trump Administration has manipulated the Act to crack down on reporters. My bill with Senator Wyden will protect journalists from being prosecuted under the Espionage Act and make it easier for members of Congress, as well as federal agencies, to conduct proper oversight over any privacy abuses. Our nation’s strength rests on the freedom of the press, transparency, and a functioning system of checks and balances. This bill is a step toward ensuring those same principles apply to intelligence gathering and surveillance operations.”

The Espionage Act Reform Act:

  • Protects journalists who solicit, obtain or publish government secrets from prosecution.
  • Ensures that each member of Congress is equally able to receive classified information, including from whistleblowers. Currently, the law criminalizes the disclosure of classified information related to signals intelligence to any member of Congress, unless it is in response to a “lawful demand” from a committee. This puts members in the minority party and those not chairing any committee at a significant disadvantage.
  • Ensures that federal courts, inspector generals, the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board can conduct oversight into privacy abuses.
  • Ensures that cybersecurity experts who discover classified government backdoors in encryption algorithms and communications apps used by the public can publish their research without the risk of criminal penalties. It is up to governments to hide their surveillance backdoors; academic researchers and other experts should not face legal risks for discovering them.

The full bill text is available here. Read a summary of the bill here.