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Graham is referee in battle between secrets and leaks

The senator, chairman of the committee that will consider a bill to punish government workers who share confidential information with the media, is working for a compromise.

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 27, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Florida Sen. Bob Graham's new position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has put him squarely in the middle of a struggle between the media and the intelligence community.

Graham's committee is about to consider legislation authored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the former committee chairman, that would impose criminal sanctions on government employees who leak confidential information to the media. The measure passed Congress last year, but was vetoed by President Clinton.

Shelby wants the committee to approve the bill again this year, figuring that President Bush is more likely to sign it. But organizations representing the broadcast and newspaper industry -- including some in which executives of the St. Petersburg Times are members -- oppose the legislation on grounds it would upset the existing balance between the government's need to protect national secrets and the public's right to know.

Unlike Shelby, who last year ignored the media's opposition, Graham, a member of the prominent family that owns the Washington Post, seems somewhat more sympathetic to the media's arguments. Even though he supported Shelby's bill last year, Graham is looking for ways to satisfy the concerns of the media, aides say.

President Bush has not said where he stands on the legislation.

The pressure on Graham intensified last week when it was disclosed that the executives of four major media organizations have asked the senator to delay the panel's planned Sept. 5 public hearing on the issue to allow time for government and news representatives to seek a common approach to protecting classified information.

The letter, signed by executives of the National Newspaper Association, the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times, said present and former government officials and representatives of the news organizations plan to meet next month to "generate proposals for solutions that may satisfy everyone's legitimate concerns."

They said that criminalization of "all unauthorized disclosure of classified information . . . would destroy the delicate balance that has been achieved in this country between the public's right to know and the legitimate demands of national security."

Because of the demands of the Senate's crowded legislative schedule, it is unlikely that the hearing will be postponed. Graham said when he scheduled the hearing that he was doing so because the media had complained that no hearings were held on last year's bill.

"The whole point of having this hearing is to let them go on the record and propose alternatives," Graham spokesman Paul Anderson said.

Witnesses at the hearing will include CIA Director George Tenet, a top official of the Justice Department, representatives of CNN and the National Newspaper Association, and a panel of legal scholars who specialize in First Amendment issues.

Shelby's bill would make it a felony punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison for a current or retired government employee to disclose "properly classified information" to unauthorized people. Under current law, a government employee could not be convicted unless the information related directly to national defense and the leaker knew that disclosure would hurt the interests of the United States.

When he vetoed the bill, Clinton said it would impede the normal activities of government. His advisers argued that current law is sufficient but is not always enforced. The news organizations fear the tougher law would result in subpoenas being issued to journalists who published leaked information.

Shelby is seeking to attach the same language to the fiscal 2002 intelligence authorization bill, which is scheduled to be marked up and voted on by the committee Sept. 6, a day after the hearing. In the House, however, Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., has signaled his preference that anti-leak legislation be handled as a separate piece of legislation and not as an amendment to the intelligence authorization bill.

In a letter to Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Sensenbrenner said that if the Senate attached language criminalizing unauthorized disclosure of classified information, he "would seek immediate referral" to his committee.

The judiciary chairman also recommended that he and Goss and their committees "jointly encourage the Bush administration to review appropriate administrative, civil and criminal responses to this problem" and the possibility of "improving the enforcement of current law."

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