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Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
November 2, 2000

Clinton may back away from bill
that would jail officials for disclosing secrets

By Jonathan S. Landay

WASHINGTON -- Facing an unexpected barrage of criticism, the White House voiced second thoughts Wednesday about legislation that would heighten government secrecy by sending officials to jail for disclosing classified information.

President Clinton is still deliberating whether he will veto or sign the bill that contains the measure, said White House spokesman P.J. Crowley. Clinton has until Saturday to decide.

"We continue to have concerns that it is overly broad and not the right way to attack the problem," Crowley said. "We are not certain that this is the right way to do it."

The White House had previously joined the Justice Department, the CIA and members of the House and Senate intelligence committees in supporting the legislation. Congress approved it last month as part of the intelligence appropriations bill for 2001.

The provision would make disclosing classified information without authorization a felony punishable by fines and up to three years in prison. It would apply to present or former government officials and private individuals with security clearances.

Under current law, only the disclosure of certain top secrets, including the names of intelligence agents and nuclear weapons designs, are felonies. Leaking less sensitive classified information can be punished by a loss of security clearance, dismissal and fines.

Proponents argued that the new measure is needed to stem a spate of leaks of classified documents and other information to news media. The leaks jeopardize intelligence operations and the lives of foreigners who spy for the United States, supporters of the legislation said.

"During the past several years, unauthorized disclosures have taken their toll. They have damaged intelligence relationships. They have damaged intelligence collection efforts, and they have also put human sources at risk," said an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The damage caused by leakers can be every bit as great as damage caused by espionage."

Critics argue that the measure would also stifle leaks of information that are beneficial. They argue that when some classified information is made public it can force the government to alter policies that run counter to U.S. national interests or public opinion or are detrimental to Americans.

One example they cite is the Pentagon Papers, the official chronicle of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They also point to radiation and biological warfare experiments on unknowing Americans and human rights violations by U.S.-supported regimes in Guatemala, Chile and other countries.

More than 30 newspapers sent letters to the White House on Wednesday urging Clinton to veto the measure, the Newspaper Association of America said.

Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder, a member of the NAA Executive Committee, said, "I urge the president to veto it as well."

Also on Wednesday a former CIA director, James Woolsey, added his voice to the growing opposition.

"It seems to me that it sweeps overly broadly," Woolsey, a lawyer who served as the nation's top intelligence officer from February 1993 to January 1995, said in an interview with Knight Ridder.

Most troubling to critics is what they see as an overly broad definition of what would constitute a criminal act under the measure.

The prohibition against disclosing classified materials would not only apply to properly marked documents but also to material that a current or formal official "has reason to believe has been properly classified."

"Suppose a government official was elaborating on a position and what he said was reflected in some classified document, but he didn't get his information from that document," Woolsey said. "It seems to me that he could conceivably have a problem."

Opponents of the bill also say it would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and dissuade whistleblowers from disclosing wrongdoing within federal government agencies.

"When the executive branch is behaving according to law, Congress does not need or depend upon leaks. But when the executive branch engages in misconduct, it is leaks to the media that are Congress' most important source of information," said Steven Aftergood, director of a project that monitors government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The bill would not prevent whistle-blowers from disclosing classified information to members of Congress or judges.

Critics of the legislation include lawmakers of both parties, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, a Republican of Illinois. He has proposed delaying implementation of the secrecy provision for a year so that congressional committees could study it further.

"This legislation attempts to protect our national security at the expense of an informed public and, in that end, that's not real security at all," declared Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a news conference where he urged Clinton to veto the measure.

(c) 2000, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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