Can Private Citizens Negotiate With Saddam?

Last week, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., led a delegation to Iraq to meet with top officials in Saddam Hussein’s government. Rahall reported back that Iraq would be “very interested” in allowing unconditional weapons inspections if the Bush administration would stop calling for Hussein’s ouster. Is it legal for U.S. citizens to conduct free-lance diplomacy?

In this case, yes. Rahall cleared his trip with the departments of State and Treasury, which probably gives him legal cover. But more generally, the answer is a complicated one. The only law governing free-lance diplomacy is the antique Logan Act, which has gone largely unenforced for 200 years.

Dating back to 1799, the act is named for George Logan, a Philadelphia Quaker who traveled to France with letters from Thomas Jefferson in the hope of preventing a war with the fledgling United States. President John Adams was none too pleased by Logan’s action (Jefferson, though vice president, was a rival). Neither was the Federalist-dominated Congress, which passed a law prohibiting unauthorized private citizens from communicating with foreign governments to influence disputes with the United States.

Despite all this, Logan went unpunished, and it appears that no one has been convicted of a Logan Act violation. But sometimes the act is used for intimidation. During the 1984 presidential race, Ronald Reagan suggested that a trip Jesse Jackson had taken to Cuba could be legally actionable, citing the Logan Act as the “law of the land.” The act has also been brandished against Henry Ford, Joseph McCarthy, Jane Fonda, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (for an enterprising trip to Iran). Again, no convictions.

None of which is to say that private citizens can get away with anything when visiting or interacting with foreign countries. They can’t export or sell arms illegally, of course. And blabbing classified information is banned under the Espionage Act—a law, unlike the Logan Act, that people have gone to jail for violating.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Alfred Rubin of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; Ruth Wedgewood of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; and James Lindsay of the Brookings Institution.