FAS | Government Secrecy | November 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS

The Wall Street Journal
November 6, 2000

Clinton Vetoes Intelligence Spending Bill,
Including Easier Prosecution of Leaks

by Neil King Jr.
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a measure to crack down on government employees who leak official secrets say they aren't giving up after President Clinton vetoed the proposal over the weekend; they will try again next year.

The provision, which was only a few paragraphs in a thick package reauthorizing U.S. intelligence programs, sought to impose a penalty of as much as three years in prison for any government official convicted of leaking "properly classified" information to the press or other parties. Reflecting deep divisions over the bill within his own party, Mr. Clinton decided Saturday to veto it, arguing that the measure could "chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy."

Lawmakers in both parties attacked the bill after its passage in October, saying it was overly vague and would clamp down on whistle-blowers and chill relations between government and the media. News organizations also protested.

Key supporters of the bill on Capitol Hill said they would introduce a revised version, most likely when the new Congress meets next year. Trying to rush a new package in a postelection, lame-duck session would be impractical, as there would be little time for the sort of public hearings that didn't occur when the original bill was drafted.

Rep. Porter Goss (R., Fla.) was one of several lawmakers who expressed dismay over President Clinton's action. "This legislation, including the offending anti-leak provision, was approved by the administration before final passage," said Mr. Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He said that Mr. Clinton's veto was "disruptive, and may send a dangerous message to those who would harm U.S. interests."

Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, who pushed for the measure from the start, had argued for days that they weren't committed to the precise language of the bill, but were firm in wanting to see some strong anti-leak bill passed as soon as possible.

"Our interest all along has solely been to plug a gap in the existing law, which jeopardizes the security of the United States and compromises our ability to protect the American people," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said yesterday. "We look forward to working with all parties to craft a new provision that helps preserve national security while fostering the necessary public discussion of important issues."

Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, called the veto "a stunning rebuke to Congress." The congressional intelligence committees, he said, "had essentially acted as proxies for the CIA. Now they will be forced to hold open hearings, as they should have all along."

Supporters of the legislation in Congress as well as in the Justice Department and the CIA insisted that tougher measures were needed to stem the flow of media leaks that they claim have weakened the information-gathering abilities of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Under current law it is illegal to release classified information that relates to national defense, helps a foreign power or exposes U.S. intelligence operatives. Supporters of the proposed law had sought to extend penalties to any current or former official who released secrets crucial to U.S. national security.

But even some key backers conceded before the veto that the wording of the provision was too broad and would open the way for the prosecution of officials who were legitimately trying to inform the public.

Crafting a new law that will also satisfy critics won't be easy. The CIA and other U.S. agencies had intentionally sought a broader mandate to go after those who disclose national secrets. But the very broadness of the provision is what sparked such an outcry.

FAS | Government Secrecy | November 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS