The Logan Act, originally enacted in 1799 and amended in 1994, prohibits unauthorized U.S. citizens from interfering in relations between the United States and foreign governments. Despite numerous judicial references to the Act, the Congressional Research Service has discovered no prosecutions under the Logan Act in its more than 200 years of existence. It has, however, served as the basis for several political challenges, not unlike those now being launched against Speaker Pelosi.
In 1975, Senators John Sparkman and George McGovern were accused of violating the Logan Act when they traveled to Cuba and met with Cuban officials. In considering that case, the U.S. Department of State declared:
"The clear intent of this provision [Logan Act] is to prohibit unauthorized persons from intervening in disputes between the United States and foreign governments. Nothing in section 953 [Logan Act], however, would appear to restrict members of the Congress from engaging in discussions with foreign officials in pursuance of their legislative duties under the Constitution. In the case of Senators McGovern and Sparkman the executive branch, although it did not in any way encourage the Senators to go to Cuba , was fully informed of the nature and purpose of their visit, and had validated their passports for travel to that country."
The circumstances of Speaker Pelosi's trip to Syria were similar. The Bush administration was well aware of the "nature and purpose" of the proposed trip, and while President Bush discouraged it and is now harshly criticizing it, the executive branch took no action to prevent Pelosi from leaving the country. Indeed, the White House has not mentioned the Logan Act in relationship to Pelosi's trip.
Some other Americans accused of, but never prosecuted for violating the Logan Act include Ross Perot for his efforts to locate U.S. POWs in Southeast Asia and former Speaker of the House Jim Wright for his relations with the Sandinista government. In 1984, Reverend Jessie Jackson's trips to Syria, Cuba and Nicaragua drew accusations of Logan Act violations from President Reagan. And who can forget Jane Fonda's many controversial trips to Southeast Asia in protest of the Vietnam War? Yet, as far as the Congressional Research Service has been able to determine, no American has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act.
Chances are, the attacks being leveled at Speaker Pelosi's trip will end up amounting to little more than, as Liberal Politics Guide Deborah White suggests, a very "premature start to the 2008 presidential race."
The Logan Act (18 U.S.C. § 953) 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, 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.