By John Dempsey
When an individual engages with a foreign government without the express permission of the U.S. administration, the media often starts talking about the Logan Act. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is now the focal point of this debate due to his actions in dealing with Iran behind the government’s back.
Kerry was promoting his new memoir when asked by radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt about his relationship with Iran since leaving his Secretary of State position. Kerry’s response should be eye-opening. He admitted meeting with high ranking Iranian officials several times, possibly undermining Trump’s stance on the Iranian nuclear agreement (JPCOA).
The controversy surrounding Kerry’s actions may have brought the Logan Act back into the public spotlight, but what is this piece of legislation and what does it mean? It may behoove us to take a look at the law itself and its background, in the hope that it will help us to determine whether John Kerry’s actions were illegal or not.
What is Logan?
The Logan Act was enacted by Congress in 1799, and states the following:
“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.”
History of Logan
During the 1770s, France assisted the colonies during the Revolutionary War against the British. Less than a decade later, in 1789, the French Revolution was in full swing, and the Revolutionary Government looked to the United States for help. When France courted America, members of President Washington’s cabinet had mixed responses. Washington wished to stay neutral between the French aristocracy and revolutionaries. However, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had just returned from a five-year assignment in France working on relations and creating a pro-French policy in 1778. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton sought to side with Britain’s support of the French establishment. Eventually, Hamilton won the debate, and the Jay Treaty was passed in 1794, settling relations with Britain and opening commercial deals. The U.S. also declined to pay any debts owed to the French crown, despite large loans received for its own Revolutionary War.
The French were infuriated with the United States and placed an embargo on its former ally. In 1797, President John Adams sent government ministers to France in an attempt to smooth over relations. The representatives were contacted by three unknown French agents who attempted to bribe the Americans, which created a clamor in the States.
Fearing war with the new French Republic in 1798, private citizen George Logan went to France to garner an agreement. The United States government did not permit him to meet with the French government in an official capacity. Regardless, the mission was successful, and France ended all embargos on America. Despite positive results, Logan’s actions were not appreciated by the U.S. and he was considered a traitor. On January 30, 1799, the Logan Act became law, preventing any future unauthorized diplomatic missions.
At face value, Kerry did the same thing as Logan did. He is a citizen that spoke to a foreign government on behalf of the United States government without authorization. This statute has only been used twice. The last time was in 1853, and neither use has resulted in a conviction.
Until there is a complete investigation, it is unknown if Kerry violated the Logan Act. Regardless, Kerry helped Obama run an end around Congress with the Iran deal. Now, he is trying to do the same with Trump. Kerry needs to stay in his lane.