WASHINGTON — The Espionage Act, a World War I-era law once used to stamp out dissent, eventually became the government’s legal tool of choice against spies and unauthorized leakers. But now former President Donald J. Trump faces questions about whether he violated the act after the F.B.I. seized top secret documents that he had taken to his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.
In recent years, some on the left have criticized the law, saying it was used to prosecute people who leaked government secrets. Now Republicans are denouncing the act after the Justice Department referred to it in its search warrant to retrieve documents from Mr. Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Fla., including some that were marked classified.
What is the Espionage Act, and how was it first used?
Congress first passed the Espionage Act in 1917 at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson. In a bid to quell dissent against the United States’ support for World War I, the act prohibited obtaining or disclosing information related to national defense if it could be used at the expense of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation. In 1918, a set of amendments prohibited speech considered disloyal or abusive to the United States.