Numerous US officials are calling for a resurrection of the US Espionage Act as a tool for prosecuting WikiLeaks. The dusting-off of the old law is all but certain. But the outcome of the constitutional dust-up that is sure to follow will result in triumph or tragedy for the US bill of rights.
In 1917, in the midst of a war hysteria, the United States passed the Espionage Act. The law has nothing to do with prosecuting spies. From its inception, it had everything to do with suppressing dissent. The Great War was unpopular with many Americans, very like today's engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Make no mistake about it. The Espionage Act targeted political dissidents. Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee offered a simple defence of the law when it was introduced to Congress: "If we cannot reason with men to be loyal, it is high time we forced them to be loyal." Others, such as Congressman William Green of Iowa, were more blunt. His statement resembled modern calls supporting the execution of the suspected WikiLeaks "whistleblower" Bradley Manning: "For the extermination of these pernicious vermin no measures can be too severe."