Commentary Magazine

Weaponizing the Logan Act

Wikipedia Commons.

It is an axiom of political science that laws are a lot easier to enact than to repeal. Almost all laws benefit some group directly while adversely impacting everyone else only indirectly.

For instance, sugar tariffs greatly increase the incomes this country’s inefficient sugar producers while raising the price of sugar for everyone else. Naturally, the sugar producers fight fiercely (and very successfully) to keep the tariffs in place, while sugar consumers are largely unaware that they are being ripped off. American sugar consumers pay about $1.3 billion a year above the world price of sugar. That’s about $310,000 per American sugar farm.

But some laws benefit only politicians and they are even harder to change. Take the Logan Act. It was passed in 1799 during the quasi-war with France. That law makes it a felony for unauthorized American citizens 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 . . .”

It is named for George Logan, a Philadelphia Quaker, who met with French officials, including Foreign Minister Maurice Talleyrand, to suggest ways to improve relations with the United States. These included ending a trade embargo and releasing imprisoned American sailors. France soon did this, although apparently the decision to take these actions had already been made.

Later, as a senator, Logan tried to get the act named for him repealed with no success. In the last 219 years, exactly two people have been charged under the Logan Act and neither was convicted.

So why hasn’t it been repealed (or at least forgotten about), especially because it is quite likely unconstitutional, interfering with free speech rights under the First Amendment?

The answer, it seems, is because it is very useful for bashing political opponents, especially since World War II, as American foreign policy loomed much larger as a political matter. And since 99 percent of Americans have never heard of the Logan Act, it might get their attention for a second or two when a prominent politician is accused of committing a felony.

In 1975, with Republican Gerald Ford in the White House, Democratic senators John Sparkman and George McGovern went to Cuba and Republicans claimed a violation of the Logan Act. The State Department found no violation.

In 2015, Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican senators wrote a letter to the Iranian government and the mainstream media shouted “Logan Act!” for trying to sabotage President Obama’s negotiations regarding the Iran nuclear deal. Nothing came of it, of course.

Now, former secretary of state John Kerry is accused of violating it by trying to sabotage the deal’s rejection by the Trump Administration. Nothing will come of that either.

So, whenever you see the Logan Act mentioned in a headline, my advice is to remember the adage of John F. Kennedy: “In Washington, where there’s smoke, there’s usually a smoke making machine” and don’t bother to read the story.

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