Media Mostly Ignore Whether Pelosi’s Syria Trip Violated The Logan Act

Imagine if you will that in September 1996, just days after America launched a missile strike on Baghdad to expand the “no fly zone,” Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich met with Saddam Hussein to discuss foreign policy matters without the permission of President Clinton.

Would the media have vociferously discussed the possibility that Gingrich had violated federal law in doing so?

If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” then why have extremely few press outlets broached this issue as it pertains to current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-California) recent potentially law-breaking trip to Syria?

To best understand the issue, a little history is necessary. The Logan Act was created in 1799, and reads as follows:

§ 953. Private correspondence with foreign governments

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.

The Act was named after George Logan, who in 1798, went to France without President John Adams’ permission to try and settle the Quasi-War.

With that in mind, there seems little doubt that Pelosi might have made the same mistake Logan did, and could be, at the very least, investigated for doing so.

Yet, Google and LexisNexis searches reveal few media outlets considering this possibility.

For instance, on April 3, the New York Post published an editorial entitled “Nancy’s Nonsense”:

More than two centuries ago, Congress passed the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. As an elected official, Pelosi isn't restrained by the law - but its meaning is clear.

Negotiating with world leaders - particularly those at odds with the United States - should be left to the president, or those authorized by him to do so.

On April 6, the Wall Street Journal’s Robert F. Turner wrote a piece entitled “Illegal Diplomacy” (subscription required):

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may well have committed a felony in traveling to Damascus this week, against the wishes of the president, to communicate on foreign-policy issues with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The administration isn't going to want to touch this political hot potato, nor should it become a partisan issue. Maybe special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, whose aggressive prosecution of Lewis Libby establishes his independence from White House influence, should be called back.

The "Logan Act" makes it a felony and provides for a prison sentence of up to three years for any American, "without authority of the United States," ...

*****Update: Full WSJ article is now available through OpinionJournal (emphasis added):

The Logan Act makes it a felony and provides for a prison sentence of up to three years for any American, "without authority of the United States," to communicate with a foreign government in an effort to influence that government's behavior on any "disputes or controversies with the United States." Some background on this statute helps to understand why Ms. Pelosi may be in serious trouble.

President John Adams requested the statute after a Pennsylvania pacifist named George Logan traveled to France in 1798 to assure the French government that the American people favored peace in the undeclared "Quasi War" being fought on the high seas between the two countries. In proposing the law, Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut explained that the object was, as recorded in the Annals of Congress, "to punish a crime which goes to the destruction of the executive power of the government. He meant that description of crime which arises from an interference of individual citizens in the negotiations of our executive with foreign governments."

[...]

But conside this statement by Albert Gallatin, the future Secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of centralized government: "it would be extremely improper for a member of this House to enter into any correspondence with the French Republic . . . As we are not at war with France, an offence of this kind would not be high treason, yet it would be as criminal an act, as if we were at war." Indeed, the offense is greater when the usurpation of the president's constitutional authority is done by a member of the legislature--all the more so by a Speaker of the House--because it violates not just statutory law but constitutes a usurpation of the powers of a separate branch and a breach of the oath of office Ms. Pelosi took to support the Constitution.

[...]

The U.S. is in the midst of two wars authorized by Congress. For Ms. Pelosi to flout the Constitution in these circumstances is not only shortsighted; it may well be a felony, as the Logan Act has been part of our criminal law for more than two centuries. Perhaps it is time to enforce the law.

And, as NewsBuster Mark Finkelstein reported Friday, NBC’s Matt Lauer and Tim Russert actually discussed Pelosi’s possible violation on the “Today” show.

Yet, though USA Today editorialized Friday that Pelosi violated a long-held understanding that the United States should speak with one official voice abroad - even if the country is deeply divided on foreign policy back home,” nowhere was the actual law in question, and its seriousness, addressed.

Furthermore, though the Washington Post published its own editorial Thursday harshly critical of Pelosi’s trip, it too ignored the actual illegality potentially involved.

As far as I can tell, this is about all the coverage this matter has been given by mainstream news outlets in the United States.

Do you think the media would have been as forgiving of Speaker Gingrich if he had so behaved when Clinton was president?

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.