QUESTION: Ms. Reno, are we any closer to getting a public statement on the internal review of whether Wen Ho Lee was singled out for investigation because of his ethnic background?
U.S. Department of Justice
Attorney General Janet Reno's Weekly News Briefing
November 2, 2000
RENO: As I have indicated, we want to make everything as available as possible so that people can be their own judge, and we are making some progress. I can't quantify it for you.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, there's a bill at the White House, an intelligence authorization bill, that has come under attack from both the left, right and news media, because of provisions on classified secrets. Can you explain why these expanded penalties are needed and why it's necessary now, and what your discussions have been with the White House, regarding whether or not they will sign this bill? I understand there's been some reconsideration on their part.
RENO: The present law as -- I mean, the law prior to the passage of this act, one typical provision is 793(b). It says: Whoever lawfully having the possession of access to control over or being entrusted with any document, et cetera, or note relating to the national defense or information relating to the national defense, which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States, et cetera, et cetera, willfully, communicates, delivers or transmits the same.
That leaves a gap, a very narrow gap, involving other material that might not relate to national defense, but could jeopardize various interests of the United States. When the act was proposed to address this issue, we objected -- our objection -- our objections were noted. We wanted to make sure that the information was properly classified, and that it was delivered to somebody who the deliverer, you, was unauthorized and was not authorized to have it. Those objections were clarified and remedied. And thus, the legislation, as it was passed, affects this narrow gap.
I pointed out to the committee in my testimony, that the passage of such an act would not result in a dramatically increased number of late prosecutions, because the problem had involved not the gap, but the ability to determine who leaked the information.
QUESTION: How does the new legislation address that -- does it offer guidelines to -- as to...
RENO: It provides for the -- it provides that anyone who -- I'll give you the exact language: Whoever being an officer or employee of the United States knowingly and willfully discloses or attempts to disclose any classified information, et cetera, to a person who is not authorized access to such information, knowing that the person is not authorized, shall be fined under this title.
And so the 793 relates -- it provide -- relating to national defense. This addresses any other classified information that might not be relating to national defense, as long as it's properly classified.
QUESTION: Is a member of Congress considered an officer or an employee of the United States? Does the law cover a member of Congress or their staffs?
RENO: Let me make sure of the construction and ask Myron to confirm it for you.
QUESTION: Well, so that -- what you're saying is, it remedies the problem, that in the past this dealt only with information relating to the national defense. Was it the concern of the department that that has been construed very narrowly? Because you could argue that that could be construed quite broadly to include the apparent leak that led to this legislation.
RENO: Well, what you've got to remember is that in the construction of criminal statutes, they are narrowly construed. This arguably fills, again, a narrow gap. But it is not going to result in many new prosecutions.
QUESTION: Have you discussed with Mr. Podesta the White House's apparent second thoughts on this matter?
RENO: We will be discussing those.
QUESTION: In the past, the department has not really gone after the recipient of the leak as much as -- because of the terms of the law -- as the leaker itself. Is that likely to continue to be the case?
RENO: Well, usually you all are the recipient of the leak, and this statute does not go after -- this proposed act does not go after the recipient.
QUESTION: It would have a chilling effect on the disclosure of properly classified information that did not threaten national security but just was properly classified, correct?
RENO: It would have a chilling effect?
QUESTION: Yes. It would discourage people from talking about those matters that would be considered classified that were non- national security related.
RENO: I don't know whether you'd call it a chilling effect or not, but if there was a criminal penalty associated with it, people would recognize that they would face prosecution.
QUESTION: The inverse of this question which -- I think this is the inverse of the question. If there are not going to be many prosecutions under this -- your prediction is it won't result in many new prosecutions, and there have been very few under the old law, obviously the concern here is when classified information is made public, it takes two to tango; there's usually somebody in the news media. Past administrations of both parties have been reluctant to go after people in the news media, because, unless you get both sides of the transaction, it's very hard to make a prosecution against the government official.
I guess what I'm asking is, why bother with this new legislation, if the past record indicates that the government, no matter whose party is in control of either the Justice Department or the White House, is reluctant to prosecute anybody?
RENO: I don't think there is a reluctance to prosecute the person who leaks the information. Trying to find that person, while at the same time honoring the First Amendment interest of the media, is a very difficult task from one administration to another.
QUESTION: It's so difficult that it almost never happens.
RENO: Well, I think it is important that we continue our efforts, because some leaks have been very damaging.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, is there anything in this legislation that would prevent a federal judge from holding a reporter in contempt for refusing to disclose information about a crime, the crime that this legislation addresses?
RENO: I don't think it's in the statute; I think it's arguably in the First Amendment. If I were your lawyer, I would argue the First Amendment.
QUESTION: Well, sometimes people have gone to jail for refusing to reveal that.
RENO: Remember, my mother wanted to go to jail, too.
QUESTION: Can you explain which leaks in particular have been very damaging to the government?
RENO: I obviously wouldn't, because it would only complicate a further problem.
Thank you very much.