I'm watching "Spy Game" on Netflix. Apparently Brad Pitt, a spy for the CIA, got arrested for espionage and, upon learning this fact, fellow CIA spy Robert Redford asks his colleagues:

How long does the President have to claim him?

What's this about exactly?

It seems to imply that, unless the state acknowledges that Pitt's character works for the government, that he'll receive harsh treatment as a criminal. In fact, they said "he's being treated as a common criminal".

What confuses me is that the charge of espionage by definition implies that he's a spy working for a foreign (American) governmental agency, doesn't it?

I checked the definition of espionage:


So, Pitt's character is charged with being the agent of a foreign government, but is treated as a non-government ("common") criminal, unless his government confirms that the charge is in fact true by claiming him, in which case he's presumably treated better, as if it's not true?... this doesn't seem to make much sense?

1 Answer 1


It has to do with his citizenship. Espionage against the country you are a citizen of is a domestic offense punishable by death. Espionage against a country you are not a citizen of I would imagine falls under the Geneva Convention as a prisoner of war and follows different processing and sentencing. If the President doesn't claim him, he would be tried as a citizen spying against his own country which is treason.

  • 1
    That makes some sense, but would the Chinese (who don't allow immigration) really assume that a caucasion English-speaker is a citizen? Of course, I guess if they wanted to do that to punish him more harshly they could always pretend to think it. I will probably mark this as the solution; just let me wait a few minutes to see if anyone else answers as well.
    – y0gapants
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:36
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    I suppose they would if it gave them a loophole to kill him.
    – sanpaco
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:38
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    You're assuming that they don't know he is American already unless the president claims him. Of course they know he is and why wouldn't they want to kill a spy? They are in a win win situation. Either they get to kill a spy or the US has to admit that they were spying on them.
    – sanpaco
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:42
  • I agree with your first comment. I wasn't assuming they didn't know he's American tho, I was assuming that was obvious to them. I will mark your answer as the solution now.
    – y0gapants
    Mar 24, 2016 at 23:54
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    @sanpaco Prisoner of War status is only allocated to combatants. Combatants have a very precise definition as well. Espionage does not extend to combatants.
    – John
    May 25, 2017 at 0:00

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