Senator Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation to protect the National Security Agency from losing dragnet surveillance powers when Patriot Act provisions expire. But her bill would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

As first reported by journalist Marcy Wheeler, the provision in Feinstein’s bill [PDF] is modeled after the Espionage Act, which President Barack Obama’s administration has aggressively relied upon to prosecute a record number of whistleblowers. (Snowden was indicted under the Espionage Act.)

The provision would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the US.

A person could be criminalized if they disclosed any information connected to an application to the FISA Court, an order approved by the court or information acquired under a directive issued by the court.

Knowingly communicating, transmitting and making available information to an “unauthorized person,” such as a journalist, would be criminal. Someone who “knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location,” as Snowden did before providing documents to journalists, would be violating the law as well.

Making information available to a reporter could potentially result in someone going to jail for ten years. Retaining documents at an unauthorized location could potentially result in a one-year prison sentence.

A similar provision was included in a bill introduced by Senator Richard Burr over the weekend. The bill was also drafted to protect dragnet surveillance powers.

Both Burr, a Republican who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, and Feinstein, a Democrat and former chair of the Senate intelligence committee, are powerful senators who have traditionally supported anti-leaks measures, which Senator Ron Wyden blocked in 2012.

Feinstein accused Snowden in June 2013 of “violating” his oath to defend the Constitution. She unequivocally stated, “He violated the law. It’s treason.” When Burr found about what Snowden revealed on mass surveillance, he was not concerned about the programs but rather about how a contractor like Snowden had access to so much material.

Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who has represented a number of whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and currently represents Snowden, reacted, “Feinstein is the latest member of Congress to offer a non-compromise ‘compromise’ to replace the already-compromised USA Freedom Act. Her bill would essentially retain Richard Burr’s odious Section 215 mini-Espionage Act, imposing 10-year penalties on people like my NSA whistleblower clients Edward Snowden, William Binney and Thomas Drake, who told us what the intelligence community was really doing with the call records program.”

“The most disturbing aspect is the prospect of Congress codifying the Justice Department’s draconian use of the century-old Espionage Act into law when there’s a lot of validity that the Department has unconstitutionally applied the Espionage Act to whistleblowers.”

The provision contains no clear and present danger standard, which means it would not matter if a person knew the disclosure of information would result in no harm. The government would be under no obligation to present any evidence that a release of information caused grave damage or harmed anyone during prosecution. This would likely violate the First Amendment.

Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Stephen Kim, a former State Department employee who pled guilty to violating the Espionage Act, has criticized law used to prosecute leaks, particularly the Espionage Act, because it is “so vague and so broad.”

…[I]t deals with words that don’t have obvious meanings, such as information relating to the national defense, so that they can be applied immediately to a government employee who signs a confidentiality agreement, and then it could be applied to the foreign policy analyst who meets with that government employee and discusses what the government employee knew. And then it could be applied to a reporter who is overhearing the conversation between the government employee and the analyst and prints a story.

Not only that, the current laws can be applied to each of these individuals whether or not there is an actual document involved, or whether the subject of the leak is an oral conversation. And not only that, a prosecution can be brought without the requirement of any of the disclosures involving an actual intent to injure the United States or to assist an adversary. And all this is made more complicated when there are good motives involved, such as somebody trying to bring to the attention of the public a lie the government has stated, or a corrupt contract, or when the press is doing its job or when lobbyists are doing theirs… [emphasis added]

Both Burr and Feinstein are proposing provisions that would further entrench into law the ability of the government to criminalize a person, even if a document was never actually disclosed. Again, this has huge implications for the First Amendment.

During trial, anyone charged with violating this proposed law would not be able to make a defense that their disclosures were in the public interest. That is because the law treats “unauthorized disclosures” as strict liability offenses, which is how the Justice Department has convinced federal courts to handle cases brought against whistleblowers for leaks. A whistleblower could argue he did not know he or she was communicating classified information or that what he had in his or her possession was a FISA order but that kind of a defense would not be all that appealing to someone wanting to come off as competent and appropriately concerned about government policies.

Finally, what Burr and Feinstein are proposing is comparable to the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination (SHIELD) Act, which was sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman back in 2010. It sought to make it a crime to publish or disseminate classified information and was reintroduced after WikiLeaks and other organizations began to publish US State Embassy cables.

However, the provision stops short of criminalizing the publishing of classified information, which would make it blatantly unconstitutional. Instead, the provisions nestled in an array of extensions designed to preserve spying powers simply go after the person revealing the information, and, in a climate that already has been very chilly for national security whistleblowers, it discourages government employees from going public with concerns about the operations of US intelligence agencies.

If this measure were to be adopted by Congress in any so-called compromise bill, the next Edward Snowden would likely choose to stay silent and keep concerns to themselves or flee the United States, as Snowden did, because they recognize going public in the US could mean facing harsh punishment.

Image is a screen shot from a broadcast of a Senate hearing.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. starrynight
    May 26, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    honey please call it is the time to end it. you have more than you need. most americans need the basics

  2. kgosztola
    May 26, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Is this comment supposed to have some kind of value beyond being super trite?

  3. starrynight
    May 26, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    no, she has grown wealthy buy by stealing from veterans. check out the land grab from the va

  4. kgosztola
    May 26, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    Oh, got it. Your comment is directed at DiFi, not the author.

  5. starrynight
    May 26, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    thought difi, boxer were with with us. hope so

  6. Alice X
    May 26, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Thank you! We can have the solace that some are paying attention. They are essential, but they are few and they are blocked by a complicit Corporate Media, the fourth estate long ripped from its original purpose. Now its collusion and propaganda in service of the ruling class is inexorable.

    There the multitude are inundated with glittering generalities that are devoid of meaning.

    Freedom, patriotism, national interest and so on and so forth.

    The multitude can be very angry, but their anger is deflected.

  7. starrynight
    May 26, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    thank you, alice X. thank you

  8. Louis
    May 26, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    My senator is such a friggin’ disappointment, not representing me certainly and not much of her constituency. I will call her but I’m not holding my breath. You would think after the brouhaha with her staff being spied on she would recognize the NSA is out of control, but noooo, she feigns outrage and goes back to her old and familiar ways of enabling her security-state handlers, updating the Espionage Act for the 21st century. Really? Oh right, she’s a moderate Democrat.

  9. dubinsky
    May 26, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    how availing is a defense of “public interest” in a prosecution of a theft and disclosure of classified information?

    aren’t defenses based on law rather than on good intentions usually more sound?

  10. May 26, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Great job, Kevin…! Btw can you give me a call…?

  11. dubinsky
    May 26, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    don’t put your trust in legislators because you think that they’re sympathetic. you gotta look to see what they do rather than believe what they say.

  12. Screwtape
    May 26, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    Until now what was “injurious” to the U.S. has been subject to honest debate. Now it seems there’s a Star Chamber in the making, and everything will be driven by “compelling needs” as defined there. We have been inching that way for some time, IMO, and there’s something Stalinesque about it.

    OTOH my most optimistic hunch is DiFi is aware of all that, and so really isn’t serious about what she actually says, and something else is going on. Charitable naïveté on my part.

    Still there’s an outside chance it’s for show. A number of factors to consider, which DiFi would know. First, Snowden is an outlier, and there simply aren’t S clones hiding in every drawer and closet. Second, the mechanics of what goes on at NSA and elsewhere must already have been immensely reinforced over the past two years (at horrific monetary cost no doubt). Dual control (or higher) of sensitive stuff all the time. Systems monitoring on steroids now. Unimaginable personnel screening. Everything’s essentially S proofed by now.

    There would be a long list of such to make DiFi’s tirade somewhat suspect, as it appears. At best it’s superfluous. So I’m tempted it’s actually messaging for a select audience including many embarrassed allies and their constituents, not to mention our own political sewer at home.

  13. May 26, 2015 at 9:08 pm


  14. Bearpaw01
    May 26, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    With Democrats like Senator Feinstein, who needs [redacted]?

    [… this comment has been flagged by the Department of Information Defense … please disregard …]

  15. Hugh
    May 26, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    We will have to wait and see what if any changes have been made to the NSA’s powers. I doubt there will be any that are substantive or that the NSA can’t work around. It is important to understand that the NSA is not there to protect us but to protect the rich and elites who rule us from us. It is a necessary apparatus of a police state. Billions are poured into it and the contractors who work with it, but it has never stopped or played a critical role in the stopping of a single terrorist attack. This is not because it is being hush hush about its role. It has certainly made such claims, but these have been shown without much effort to be false.

    As for Dianne Feinstein, she is nearly 82 and is a vicious, egotistical old fossil. We used to call her the Lieberman of the West, sanctimonious at the same time that her husband has made tens of millions from the government through her connections. If you think she is going to defend your rights, you need to stop smoking whatever it is you are smoking.

  16. kimsarah
    May 27, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Ms. Feinstein is a fine one, indeed. The gift that keeps giving.
    As for “treason,” that is in the eye of the beholder.

  17. sisterlauren
    May 27, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I informed Dianne Feinstein’s office that I had a solution to the war in Iraq in 2004. I expected to be called into her office to explain myself, but instead I was threatened by a Blackwater helicopter which is a federal crime. At the time Blackwater was working for the CIA.

  18. sisterlauren
    May 27, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Unless you are one of the fascists who want to eliminate our civil rights, Dianne Feinstein is not with you.

  19. sisterlauren
    May 27, 2015 at 10:26 am

    What Feinstein does is treasonous.

  20. dubinsky
    May 27, 2015 at 11:32 am

    your opinions on legal matters are pretty much ignorant and lame….when not simply bizarre.

    we don’t have to like a dam thing that Feinstein does, but the crime of treason is pretty clearly defined and Feinstein ain’t guilty of it.

  21. ronbo
    May 27, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Sen. Clair McCaskill has been a HUGE disappointment in her support of Government Power over citizen rights. From TPP to spying on Americans, she can be counted on to support Republican policy while pretending to be a Democrat.

  22. sisterlauren
    May 27, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    What makes you think I care a thing about what you think? Everyone knows you are a liar.

    Last night I was wondering if you are Cheney or if you only think just like him. I consider you to be a part of their torture team and I would just love to see you rotting in jail for it. IMO you deserve to hang for treason yourself. I think you are completely vile and evil.

    So, no, I do not care at all what you think about me. Why should I? That would be really, really stupid.

  23. dubinsky
    May 27, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    you poor unhealthy woman… I’m sure you really delude yourself that Cheney might know who you are or care.

  24. marcusmaximus04
    May 27, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    “Feinstein accused Snowden in June 2013 of “violating” his oath to defend the Constitution.”

    And I’ll go ahead and take this time to accuse Feinstein of violating hers.