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The petition calls for criminal charges against 47 senators who “committed a treasonous offense” in writing a menacing letter to the government of Iran, now in the middle of negotiations with President Obama aimed at reaching a nuclear energy agreement.
The letter, penned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 46 other Republican senators, warned Iran that any deal reached by the president could be undone by a future commander-in-chief “with the stroke of a pen.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif responded to the senators’ letter, saying “in our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy.”
The move, decried as highly unusual by a cover story in the New York Daily News, follows the highly unorthodox saga of Iran nuclear negotiations and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s uninvited address to Congress earlier this month.
The petition’s legal basis is found under Chapter 18 of the U.S. Code §953, also known as the Logan Act. The law, passed in 1799 and revised in 1994, states:
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.
According to a 2006 report by the Library of Congress, no one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act, and only one person has ever been indicted under it: a Kentucky farmer in 1803.
Old as it is, the Logan Act still remains in effect as federal statute—it’s the law of the land. Its application in actual criminal proceedings is unprecedented, but so is the groundswell of public outrage calling for politicians to be put behind bars. Being almost 100 years old hasn’t stopped the Espionage Act being invoked to prosecute and convict several U.S. whistleblowers—including Chelsea Manning—even though it was originally intended to punish seditious spies sharing information with the enemy during World War I.
For now the White House has to issue an official response to the petition, as it is required to do with all petitions on its online “We The People” platform that reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures.
Photo via Robert Banh/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Shawn Carrié is an Istanbul-based Middle East correspondent with a focus on human rights and conflict. Since 2014, he has covered the war in Syria, Turkish politics, and more for the Intercept, Yahoo News, Vice, CJR, and Newsweek.