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    A Times Editorial

    Classified silencing

    The secrets act would give the government a new way to hide incompetence and illegal activity in the name of protecting national security.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 24, 2001

    A dangerous piece of legislation pushed for the past 50 years by the Central Intelligence Agency is once again on Congress' agenda. Designed to silence federal whistle-blowers, the bill would criminalize the disclosure of any classified government information, even information that had no bearing on national security. Under what would be the nation's first official secrets act, the government would have new powers to hide incompetence and illegal activity.

    The legislation is the same that passed last year as part of the intelligence authorization bill and was vetoed by President Clinton. This time, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the bill's primary cheerleader, expects a different reception from President Bush.

    As chairman of the Intelligence Committee, it is incumbent on Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., to reconsider his prior support for the measure. He is in a position to make sure this misguided secrecy bill never sees the light of day. But instead of courageously standing up for free speech and the need for government accountability, Graham seems to be greasing the track for this bill. Graham has scheduled a single-day hearing on the bill for Sept. 5, a day before the expected committee mark up of the intelligence authorization bill -- the legislation to which the classified information bill will probably be attached.

    Graham's support is an abdication of his congressional oversight function on intelligence matters. The executive branch makes the sole determination on what material to classify, and history is replete with examples where that process was used to conceal evidence of government mistakes and abuse of power, from Iran-Contra to the CIA's role in propping up Chile's brutal Pinochet regime. Often the only way these abuses come to light is through the courageous act of a staffer, agent or military officer willing to defy the classification system and leak information to the news media or to Congress. If this bill passes, the stakes for whistle-blowing would be so high -- prison terms and stiff fines -- few would chance it.

    We survived the Cold War under the old rules, which designate disclosure of certain sensitive classified information, such as our nuclear secrets or the identity of an American agent, as criminal offenses but leave other disclosures to administrative punishments. It is hard to believe that the leak situation has grown more dangerous for national security. Certainly, the CIA hasn't made a convincing public case.

    The law would also interfere with the press' role in newsgathering -- a role the public and the Congress depend upon to learn of executive branch abuses. While the measure's sponsors say it wouldn't be used to prosecute reporters or newspapers for publishing classified information, journalists could be called upon to disclose their sources as part of a criminal investigation. It would make journalists tools for government investigators and instantly lessen their effectiveness as a watchdog.

    If Graham really believes government needs to be held accountable for its actions, he should help bury this legislation that would allow it to hide behind a rubber stamp marked "Classified."

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