Espionage Act: meaning, what is the US punishment for being a spy - what sentence could Jack Teixeira get?

FBI agents on Thursday (13 April) arrested young national guardsman Jack Teixeira suspected of being behind a major leak of sensitive US government secrets (Photo: STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)FBI agents on Thursday (13 April) arrested young national guardsman Jack Teixeira suspected of being behind a major leak of sensitive US government secrets (Photo: STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
FBI agents on Thursday (13 April) arrested young national guardsman Jack Teixeira suspected of being behind a major leak of sensitive US government secrets (Photo: STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images
The US government takes allegations of espionage very seriously and aggressively investigates suspects

Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, has been detained as a result of the disclosure of extremely private military documents pertaining to the conflict in Ukraine.

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The 21-year old is due to appear in court today (Friday 14 April), and could be charged under the Espionage Act for unauthorised removal of classified national defence information, according to US Attorney General Merrick Garland.

But what is espionage, what is the United States’ Espionage Act, and what sort of repercussions could Teixeira be looking at if found guilty? Here is everything you need to know.

What is espionage?

Espionage is the act of obtaining secret or confidential information without permission from a person, organisation, or government, typically for political, military, or economic purposes.

Espionage can involve various activities such as spying, surveillance, and infiltration of sensitive locations or organisations.

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It is often carried out by government agencies or individuals acting on behalf of a government, but can also be done by private organisations or individuals seeking to gain an advantage over their competitors. Espionage is considered a serious crime and is often punishable by law.

(Photos: Getty Images)(Photos: Getty Images)
(Photos: Getty Images) | Getty Images

What is the Espionage Act?

The Espionage Act is a United States federal law that was enacted in 1917 during World War I. Its main purpose was to criminalise and punish acts of espionage, including the disclosure of classified information that could potentially harm the national security of the United States.

The Espionage Act prohibits a range of activities, including obtaining or delivering defence information to unauthorised persons, attempting to obtain or deliver defence information to unauthorised persons and possessing, receiving, or transmitting defence information with the intent to harm the United States or aid a foreign government.

The law also prohibits the communication of false information that may harm the United States or aid a foreign government during times of war or national emergency.

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Over the years, the Espionage Act has been used to prosecute a variety of cases, including famous cases against Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Manning is a former US Army intelligence analyst who was charged with multiple offenses, including violations of the Espionage Act, for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, which was later commuted by President Obama.

Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked classified documents to journalists in 2013, revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Snowden was charged with violations of the Espionage Act, among other offenses, and has been living in exile in Russia since 2013.

Jack Teixeira in a photo posted on social media / Facebook. Jack Teixeira in a photo posted on social media / Facebook.
Jack Teixeira in a photo posted on social media / Facebook. | Jack Teixeira in a photo posted on social media / Facebook.

What are the punishments for espionage in the United States?

The penalties for espionage under the Espionage Act can be severe, and may include imprisonment, fines, or both. The specific penalties depend on the nature and severity of the offence, as well as other factors such as the individual’s criminal history and the level of harm caused to national security.

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For example, if an individual is convicted of delivering defence information to a foreign government, they may face up to life imprisonment or a fine of up to $10 million (£8 million), or both. If an individual is convicted of communicating or transmitting classified information, they may face up to 10 years imprisonment, a fine, or both.

In addition to criminal penalties, individuals convicted of espionage may also face other consequences, such as loss of security clearance, termination of employment, and damage to their reputation and future job prospects.

It is worth noting that the US government takes allegations of espionage very seriously and may aggressively investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of engaging in such activities.

What punishment could Jack Teixeira face?

According to US Attorney General Merrick Garland, 21-year-old Teixeira - scheduled to appear in court on Friday 14 April - could face charges under the Espionage Act for unauthorised removal of classified information related to national defence.

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Even if Teixeira did not mean to cause harm to America’s national defence (members of his Thug Shaker Central chat group claim he is merely a young man who wanted to impress his friends by showing them the documents), the anticipated charges could result in a term of up to 10 years in jail.

That’s according to Brandon Van Grack, a former justice department national security prosecutor, who said: “This is someone who is facing on the higher end of exposure for years in prison... because the leaks were so damaging.”

The Biden administration has scrambled for days to contain the fallout from the leaked information - which publicised potential vulnerabilities in Ukraine’s air defence capabilities and exposed private assessments by allies on an array of intelligence matters - and assess the diplomatic and national security consequences of the leaked documents since they were first reported last week.

A top Pentagon spokesman told reporters earlier this week that the disclosures present a “very serious risk to national security” and the Justice Department opened an investigation to identify the person responsible. President Joe Biden said earlier this week that he was not aware of anything “contemporaneous” in the documents that could be “of great consequence”.

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