25 Jun 20

What is Espionage? +Laws, Charges & Statute of Limitations

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Last Updated on: 23rd August 2023, 05:52 pm

Espionage in the United States

Espionage is a wide set of federal crimes as described by chapter 37 of the United States Code (USC).

The driving force behind most of the espionage cases is the collection and dissemination of information of a sensitive nature from the United States government to other foreign agencies or entities.

The harshness and frequency of espionage cases have drastically increased since the 9/11 attack.

Anyone tasked with storing classified information such as intelligence or defense information can potentially be charged for espionage because they are responsible in case such sensitive information gets to unauthorized parties.

Espionage Laws

Espionage laws are not new – they have been in existence since the 20th century. Most people are not familiar with espionage laws because those who often come into contact with the government’s sensitive documents are senior politicians and members of the military.

Nonetheless, the United States government has in recent years increased the scope of how espionage laws operate across the globe. There has been a deliberate attempt to educate the general public about these laws and how they affect them.

Espionage Crimes and Charges

Statutes give a large category of various espionage crimes as well as charges. This depends on the particular type of information that was given out or held back as well as the security value of the information in question.

Common espionage charges include the following:

  • Collecting, transmitting or losing defense information
  • Concealing or harboring any person, whether domestic or foreign – whom the person concealing has reason to believe that the individual has committed or is about to commit a crime under the espionage laws.
  • Sketching or photographing defense structures or installations, using aircraft to capture such installations, and distributing the same to the public or unauthorized parties.
  • Disclosing classified information
  • Publishing or selling pictures of defense installations
  • Going against the regulations set by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Collecting and distributing defense information to a foreign country to aid them in a time of war.

Penalties and Punishment for Espionage

Punishment for espionage crimes differs depending on the facts presented against the defendant. However, one important thing to note is that members of the military who are found to have engaged in an espionage crime are punished by a death sentence.

On the other hand, any civilian in the United States who is found guilty of an espionage crime can also receive very harsh punishments, such as life imprisonment. This, however, depends on the federal statutes and guidelines for such punishment.

Guidelines for Sentencing Espionage Crimes

Espionage sentencing guidelines are complex. All espionage cases are reviewed and evaluated according to different levels of points.

All offenses have what’s referred to as a “Base Offence Level”. When a person is accused of an espionage crime, the concerned authorities calculate different factors to come up with a certain point level that will inform the sentence.

For instance, disseminating sensitive security information to foreign governments has a base offense level of 37. The level can be increased to 42 if the information is regarded as very sensitive.

Limitations of Espionage Statutes

Despite the fact that the United States Code gives a 5-year statute limitation for most of the federal crimes, the statute limitation can’t be a stumbling block for the prosecution of an espionage case.

Legal scholars and constitutional experts concur that espionage cases can be prosecuted for at least 10 years after the crime was committed.

Examples of Espionage Cases

Espionage cases were rarely heard of in the past. However, prosecutions for espionage crimes have become commonplace after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

For example, in early 2010, the Obama Administration charged six federal employees for talking to the media about projects related to national security in violation of the secrecy code.

Several other organizations and individuals, such as WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, have also been accused and charged for espionage-related crimes. Snowden managed to flee from prosecution and is believed to be living in Russia.


In a nutshell, espionage is considered a serious crime in the United States. Laws governing espionage became more visible after the 9/11 attack. The federal government has tightened most of these rules to protect citizens from both domestic and external aggressors.