While referring to the the Podesta emails which were leaked by WikiLeaks this week, CNN's Chris Cuomo said on live TV:

Also interesting is, remember: It's illegal to possess these stolen documents. It's different for the media, so everything you learn about this, you're learning from us. And in full disclosure, let's take a look at what is in there and what it means.

Here's a video of this quote. Here's the full clip.

This question is about Cuomo's claim that it's illegal for non-media personnel to possess the Podesta emails. By logic, this would also imply that it's illegal to read them, as it's impossible (or at least very difficult) to read them without possessing them. (If you're browsing WikiLeaks' website, the documents get stored in the memory of your computer, which means that you possess them, if only temporarily.) Of course, it's technically possible to read without possessing and we could argue the finer points of that. Regardless of that, though, the fact that Cuomo goes on to say "So, everything you learn about this, you're learning from us" implies that normal people are not allowed to read the documents directly.

Since CNN is based in the US, I'm asking this question with regards to United States law.

Is it illegal to possess or read the Podesta emails?

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    I don't see how you can make such a strong connection between reading and possessing. I can quite easily read something on a screen I do not myself possess, or in a paper someone holds up in front of me. Your title does not match the claim by the source, IMO.
    – pipe
    Oct 16, 2016 at 20:26
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    @SBoss If we look at the "possess" statement only, then I guess it's a matter of definition. However, Cuomo didn't stop there. He went on to recommend that people learn about this only from the media, connecting the two statements with the word "so". This is what clarifies how Cuomo uses the word here.
    – Lisa B
    Oct 17, 2016 at 8:06
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    @SBoss Courts have been inconsistent about what it takes to "possess" something you encounter on the Internet. Some courts have held that if you seek it out and read it intentionally, you possessed it. Some have held that you have to take an intentional act to retain it such as saving it locally. The context for most of these cases was child pornography, one of the very few forms of information that it is illegal to possess in the United States. Oct 17, 2016 at 17:07
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    @pipe: I agree. I mean by that logic, merely LOOKING at a document causes me to "posess" a copy of it briefly, since I arguably "own" the photons which have entered my eyeballs.
    – loneboat
    Oct 17, 2016 at 20:52
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    I have no clue whether it's legal to "possess" or to read them. But I am fairly confident that if there's a law against it, being a journalist doesn't make you exempt. Of course journalists never lie, so why would you want to read it yourself? :-)
    – WGroleau
    Oct 18, 2016 at 2:52

2 Answers 2


In current U.S. case law, it might be illegal to publish stolen documentary material, but prior case law rules it legal if the material is "of great public concern", which I think most media would claim the Podesta emails to be. Obviously it is legal to possess what you publish, so it is legal to read it as well.

If the Podesta material contains extensive creative work such as books or music, there could be copyright issues involved with downloading those specific files, but as per the previous source, "e-mails would be seen as predominantly factual rather than highly creative."

Cuomo has probably confused the role of the media in discussing the unclassified Podesta emails with the role of the media in discussing the classified State Department WikiLeaks material, which is illegal for U.S. government employees to read, and in a gray area with regards to those seeking employment with a U.S. agency.

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    By the way, the classified State Department WikiLeaks emails are legal to read and possess for US citizens not employed by the government?
    – Lisa B
    Oct 17, 2016 at 11:12
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    So you're saying the RIAA has the power to stop us from reading wikileaks but the CIA doesn't? Nice.
    – corsiKa
    Oct 17, 2016 at 16:03
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    "Cuomo has probably confused" is speculation. They might did it on purpose (speculation again). I don't see any reason to assume that they they acted on confusion. Oct 17, 2016 at 18:12
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    @corsiKa: no, he's saying the RIAA has potential legal grounds to stop you reading wikileaks, but the CIA doesn't. The CIA has the power to stop you breathing, which would suffice to stop you reading wikileaks ;-) Oct 18, 2016 at 0:32
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    @ypercubeᵀᴹ No reason except Hanlon's Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Oct 18, 2016 at 6:14

It's not illegal in the US.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote an article about the legalities in 2010.

They quote from a leaked memo from the Congressional Research Service (CRS):

This report identifies some criminal statutes that may apply [to dissemination of classified documents], but notes that these have been used almost exclusively to prosecute individuals with access to classified information (and a corresponding obligation to protect it) who make it available to foreign agents, or to foreign agents who obtain classified information unlawfully while present in the United States. Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.

However, if you work for a US military organization (i.e. as a subcontractor for the Air Force, and I believe directly with military as well) it is absolutely forbidden to use any information obtained from WikiLeaks in your work. In a lot of organizations, it's forbidden to even look at WikiLeaks on a home or work computer. This appears to come from an order that was reportedly issued in 2010:

The Pentagon has banned the U.S. military from viewing anything related to WikiLeaks, the website for whistleblowers which controversially released thousands of classified government documents detailing the war in Afghanistan.

Wired reported that Air Force lawyers warned not even the children of military personnel are allowed to read it:

[I]f a family member of an Air Force employee accesses WikiLeaks on a home computer, the family member may be subject to prosecution for espionage under U.S. Code Title 18 Section 793,

However, they may have backed away from that claim:

Update, 4:15 p.m.: That was fast. An Air Force spokesman tells Josh Gerstein of Politico that the legal guidance is now under review: “We were just trying to give guidance to military and civilian servicemembers and employees to control their young’uns.” That’s the service’s business?

The practice of banning personnel from reading leaked information was still in place in 2014:

The U.S. military is now telling personnel in the Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force not to visit Glenn Greenwald's new journalism outfit the Intercept, and in some cases is blocking them from the website altogether.

Cuomo's claim, however, is incorrect. There is nothing keeping ordinary citizens from having these documents provided that they themselves did not steal them. It should be noted, however, that it is illegal to publish content from these documents if obtained through illegal means. However, the things that you see in the news are publicly released by WikiLeaks and therefore unless placed under an injunction are kind of fair game.

  • 1
    Please provide some references to support your claims.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 17, 2016 at 14:54
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    I was trying to think of a way to provide references without violating my own NDAs. Hopefully this works. Oct 17, 2016 at 15:32
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    Duffel Blog is a parody blog like the onion
    – Avery
    Oct 17, 2016 at 16:05
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    For cleared personnel, this is outlined in SF-312 which all cleared personnel must sign. #3 mentions "unauthorized retention" (seeing classified information that you don't have a need-to-know falls under this category), and #4 mentions that criminal laws may apply. Simply put, even if it's posted to the world wide web, that doesn't reduce or nullify the classification of the documents/data, and cleared personnel must meet two requirements: the appropriate clearance, and have a need-to-know.
    – Shaz
    Oct 18, 2016 at 4:07
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    Nice analysis Tam. I'd go so far as to say it is our responsibility to read or sample the documents. It is our responsibility because we are stewards of our democracy.
    – user36321
    Oct 19, 2016 at 9:17

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