The man who knew too much . . .

Greetings all. I started my guest membership to ask this question:

In the US or any other Western democracy, are there laws or procedures in place to deal with someone who knows something the state prefers he or she not know, or wishes to control? Not the act of retrieving or disclosing forbidden knowledge, but simply the state of knowing something I shouldn’t.

For example, say that I am one of only three people in the country who knows how to manufacture some powerful nerve gas from ingredients I can purchase at Wal-mart. Or I happen to know for a fact that a certain person is a covert CIA agent. Or I happen to know that the recent early frost will not, in fact, impact the price of frozen orange juice.

I don’t plan to do anything with this knowledge (as far as the authorities can ascertain, at least), but the information is there, sitting in my head. I imagine that telling someone else the identity of a CIA agent would be a crime, even if my knowledge was inadvertant, but I don’t plan to do anything like that.

And my possession of this knowledge is inadvertant. Maybe the head of the CIA or the Commerce Secretary borrowed my bathroom and didn’t know I had a baby monitor in there, as he was talking to himself or gabbing on his cell phone.

Can the government force me to sign some kind of security agreement after they discover I know something that I shouldn’t? Can they arrest me, and on what grounds? Would I be in more trouble if I were living in the UK or France in this scenario? What if this took place during WWII or the Cold War?


Merely knowing something isn’t a crime. Attempting to learn secret stuff can be a crime, divulging secrets to unauthorized parties can be a crime, but merely accidentally overhearing a conversation between two super-spies about a big super-secret isn’t illegal.

:stuck_out_tongue: Do I smell P A R A N O I A ?

I don’t know the answer to your question, but it sounds like a great plot for a movie. And it should be coming soon, to a theater near you. (What? You think they’re not monitoring your every move?) ** Is that van on the corner again?**

This question is something that I started thinking about ever since I misheard someone on an airplane from Frankfurt. He had an obvious head injury, and was coming to the States for post-operative treatment for a brain tumor.

While we were talking, I thought I heard him say he had been a spy for the Army. So I say to myself, this guy’s probably delusional, but what if someone did have classified information in their skull and received a brain injury that made them unable to comprehend the consequences of divulging it? Not Admiral Poindexter or William Casey, those guys would end up in elaborate suites in Walter Reed, but a guy who works for a living as an actual spy. They do exist, and as our cold war warriors grow ever older the liklihood of Alzheimer’s increases.

Anyway, later conversation revealed contextually that he worked in supplies for the Army, so I had a good laugh at myself.

The UK has an Official Secrets Act, which is close to, if not exactly, what the OP asks about. That Wiki article lists other countries with similar legislation.

The US does not have anything similar to an Official Secrets Act, even though every president at times must want one. :slight_smile:

In WWII, however, the government found ways of keeping people who knew too much out of circulation. The gates around Los Alamos were as much to keep the scientists in as the spies out. There must be hundreds of other examples. The UK did the same at Bletchley Park. That’s the difference between real wars and whatever is happening today.

Of course there’s no law against possessing secret information. You have no fear of legal action against you because you accidentally found out the real reason Nixon resigned.

But you might face various extrajudicial punishments by various governmental factions. It is a cliche of spy fiction for an innocent person to be murdered by government agents simply for knowing too much. But said murder wouldn’t be legal, and the agents who killed you could be prosecuted for murder if evidence against them ever appeared.

Whew, that’s a relief. Thanks for the replies!

Well, but of course said evidence will never become public, and anyone who tries to investigate will find themselves opposed by shadowy forces don’t want the truth to be known. Unless of course a scrappy prosecutor–who lives on the edge and makes his own rules and doesn’t give a fuck if those pencil-pushers back at headquarters don’t like it–takes up the case in a quixotic bid to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged daughter. Then the spies might find that no one is above the law. But what are the odds of that happening?

But you’ll still be dead of course.