Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information

When classified intelligence is disclosed to the general public or to a foreign entity, it becomes a serious matter of national security. Following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush said the following in relation to guarding classified information:

Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret. My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence, and what the intelligence says. That’s for the protection of the American people.”

Whether we agree that keeping select information "secret," is really best for the American people or not, the truth is that unauthorized disclosure of classified information in the United States is a crime under the Espionage Act of 1917. Those who are found in violation of this crime against the government face broad and wide-ranging criminal sanctions. Follow along as we discuss the details of how a person can be in violation of the law against unauthorized disclosure of classified information and where to go for legal help if you are charged with federal crime.

Unauthorized Disclosure Laws Explained

There are several federal laws prohibiting the leaking of classified information. Here we will focus on one specific statute, Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Section 798. This law prohibits the knowing and willful transmittal of specified classified information to an unauthorized person, but it pertains only to information relating to the communications intelligence systems and activities of the United States.

This means that any person who knowingly and willfully

  • communicates;
  • furnishes;
  • transmits, or
  • otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person:
  • or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information

is in violation of the law. The type of classified information is any information either:

  1. concerning the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the United States or any foreign government; or
  2. concerning the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device, apparatus, or appliance used or prepared or planned for use by the United States or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes; or
  3. concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or
  4. obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government, knowing the same to have been obtained by such processes

The penalty for this crime is up to 10 years in prison, a large fine, or both.

What is Considered "Classified Information?"

Classified information means information which, at the time of a violation of this section, is, for reasons of national security, specifically designated by a U.S. Government Agency for limited or restricted dissemination or distribution. Or, put another way, it is information created or received by an agency of the federal government or a government contractor that would damage national security if improperly released. The government has a number of ways it labels information as "classified," but one specific way is through a system labeling information as TOP SECRET (highest level); information whose release would cause "serious damage" is classified SECRET; while the lowest category of classified information currently in use is CONFIDENTIAL.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information: Additional Resources

Arrested for Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information? Get Legal Help

You don’t have to be leaking classified government intelligence to the public in order to be charged with a federal crime. There are a wide range of actions that can be considered criminal in the eyes of the government. If you're being investigated or have been charged with a federal crime, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney to learn about your rights and options.

Next Steps

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