Espionage, commonly known as spying, is the practice of secretly gathering information about a foreign government or a competing industry, with the purpose of placing one’s own government or corporation at some strategic or financial advantage. Federal law prohibits espionage when it jeopardizes the national defense or benefits a foreign nation (18 U.S.C.A. § 793). Criminal espionage involves betraying U.S. government secrets to other nations.

Despite its illegal status, espionage is commonplace. Through much of the twentieth century, international agreements implicitly accepted espionage as a natural political activity. This gathering of intelligence benefited competing nations that wished to stay one step ahead of each other. The general public never hears of espionage activities that are carried out correctly. However, espionage blunders can receive national attention, jeopardizing the security of the nation and the lives of individuals.

Espionage is unlikely to disappear. Since the late nineteenth century, nations have allowed each other to station so-called military attachés in their overseas embassies. These “attachés” collect intelligence secrets about the armed forces of their host country. Attachés have worked toward the subversion of governments, the destabilization of economies, and the assassination of declared enemies. Many of these activities remain secret in order to protect national interests and reputations.

The centerpiece of U.S. espionage is the CIA, created by the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C.A. § 402 et seq.) to conduct covert activity. The CIA protects national security interests by spying on foreign governments. The CIA also attempts to recruit foreign agents to work on behalf of U.S. interests. Other nations do the same, seeking to recruit CIA agents or others who will betray sensitive information. Sometimes a foreign power is successful in procuring U.S. government secrets.

via The Free Dictionary Espionage legal definition of espionage