What’s the best way to handle and punish spies who give information to America’s enemies? In World War I, the different options split the country.
On one side was Sen. George Chamberlain (D-OR), whose bill introduced in Congress would have tried spies by court martial. On the other side was President Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Democrat, who called the bill “unconstitutional, unnecessary, and uncalled for.”
Sen. Chamberlain defended his position, arguing that his bill would adapt an antiquated interpretation to modern times:
The term ‘spy’ has had a very limited meaning in the past. It is unknown to the criminal law of the United States. A spy as such may only be punished by military law.
Our enemy of today uses very different tools from those employed at the time when spies were used to obtain information from the enemy. Germany has introduced new devices. The greatest injury wrought on us is not by the technical spy, but by sabotage, the destroyer of property by violence, the spreader of propaganda, and in other insidious and injurious ways.
By the Act of 1806 it was shown that Congress had the constitutional power to subject to court-martial civilians who acted as spies, as the word was then employed; in my opinion it has the same power today to subject to court-martial civilians who commit acts just as injurious to the members of our army and navy.
Ultimately, the senator’s position — and not the president’s — won out. Upon the 1950 adoption of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), spies are court martialed.
A recent example from 2016 is Lieutenant Commander Edward Lin: born in Taiwan, became an American citizen in 1998, but when serving in the military was suspected of giving secrets to China. Lin was court martialed and is now serving six years.
Spies and Plotters: Chamberlain Defends Drastic Bill Which He Withdrew — The Trials of Enemies in England, France, and Italy
Published: Sunday, April 28, 1918