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Stephen Kim explains what it’s like to be charged under the Espionage Act

“I don’t have any power. I am not a human being. I am the property of the state.”

Stephen Kim is a former State Department official, specalising in nuclear weapons and North Korea, who was prosecuted under the Espionage Act for speaking to Fox News reporter James Rosen. Facing years in prison, Kim ultimately accepted a plea deal with a 13-month sentence, and he’s scheduled for release in June 2015.

The Intercept has published a in-depth report by Peter Maas on Kim’s relationship with Rosen, the US government’s aggressive investigation, and the years of pain he endured before succumbing to a deal. Accompanying Maas’ report is Stephen Maing’s short film, The Surrender, which highlights the human cost of the investigation at Kim, something that sits oddly with the sensitivity of information he allegedly passed on to Rosen.

In his report, Maas sheds light on the extensive nature of the evidence the government obtained on Kim:

The FBI was able to acquire Kim’s phone records, Rosen’s phone records, their emails, security badge records for the State Department building, even records of the precise moments Kim accessed the North Korea intelligence report on his office computer. The assemblage of electronic data showed when and where and for how long Kim and Rosen talked, though not what they talked about.

Despite this information trawl, non-circumstantial evidence against Stephen Kim was scant. As Kim’s lawyer wrote in a brief, The government has not produced any email, text message, or recorded conversation documenting the contents of any communication [on June 11] between Mr. Kim and Mr. Rosen. Nevertheless this circumstantial, metadata-based evidence proved to be enough to secure a conviction. The same was true in the case of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official convicted of espionage for discussing a US operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme. The prosecution in Sterling’s case produced evidence of only 2 minutes and 40 seconds worth of phone calls and one innocuous email.

Stephen Kim’s case shows, yet again, the enormous disparity in resources between government and defendant in Espionage Act cases. As Peter Maas writes, “For a defendant facing indictment, the decision to fight is not just moral or legal. It is also largely financial.” For defendants like Kim, indictment under the Espionage Act means not just losing a livelihood, but the likelihood of having to spend their life savings on legal representation.

As Stephen Maing’s short film shows, the weight of his potential sentenced weighed heavily on Kim. For a career civil servant, it clearly brought about a painful reevaluation of basic assumptions. In the Intercept report, Kim likened his
experience to Aaron Swartz’s:

Kim talked for a while about Swartz, and about the particular psychic strain that has to be endured when you feel the government’s fist brought down on you. ‘I know exactly what happened to him,’ Kim said. ‘They threw the kitchen sink at the boy.’ He talked about his own struggle: ‘The only thing I had to think about was how to survive day to day. What do I have to do every single day to be sane.’

Kim felt destroyed:

‘My reputation is gone,’ he said over dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Reston. ‘I don’t have any power. I am not a human being. I am the property of the state.’

Stephen Kim is one of eight leakers that the Obama Administration has prosecuted with the World War I-era spy law, an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowing, unauthorised leaking, and journalism that’s made government officials afraid to speak to the media.