Section 641 of Title 18 prohibits theft or receipt of stolen government information as well as theft of the documents, computer discs, etc., that contain the information. United States v. Fowler, 932 F.2d 306, 309-10 (4th Cir. 1991); United States v. Girard, 601 F.2d 69, 70-71 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 871 (1979); United States v. DiGilio 538 F.2d 972, 977-78 (3rd Cir. 1976), cert. denied sub nom. Lupo v. United States, 429 U.S. 1038 (1977). But see United States v. Tobias, 836 F.2d 449, 451 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 991 (1988). Nevertheless, for the reasons set forth below, the Criminal Division believes that it is inappropriate to bring a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 641 when: (1) the subject of the theft is intangible property, i.e., government information owned by, or under the care, custody, or control of the United States; (2) the defendant obtained or used the property primarily for the purpose of disseminating it to the public; and (3) the property was not obtained as a result of wiretapping, (18 U.S.C. § 2511) interception of correspondence (18 U.S.C. §§ 1702, 1708), criminal entry, or criminal or civil trespass.
There are two reasons for the policy. First, it protects "whistle-blowers." Thus, under this policy, a government employee who, for the primary purpose of public exposure of the material, reveals a government document to which he or she gained access lawfully or by non-trespassory means would not be subject to criminal prosecution for the theft. Second, the policy is designed to protect members of the press from the threat of being prosecuted for theft or receipt of stolen property when, motivated primarily by the interest in public dissemination thereof, they publish information owned by or under the custody of the government after they obtained such information by other than trespassory means.
The Criminal Division does not intend, in promulgating this policy, to prevent or discourage prosecutions under any other applicable statutes, such as those prohibiting the unauthorized dissemination or possession of government information, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 793, 794, 1905, or 50 U.S.C. § 783. Instead, the Division's purpose is to require that, in the circumstances enumerated above, such cases are prosecuted under these other applicable statutes rather than under 18 U.S.C. § 641.
The adoption of this policy does not alter the responsibility of government employees to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive government information disclosed to them in the course of their employment.
[cited in JM 9-66.400]