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    A Times Editorial

    Over-classifying

    A bill that was created to intimidate whistle-blowers from leaking government information is being passed offas another measure to protect our national security.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    It took the Central Intelligence Agency 50 years to get this bit of mischief past Congress. Now a bill that would seriously impede the ability of the news media to expose wrongdoing by government is waiting on the President's desk for his signature.

    Veto it, Mr. Clinton.

    The bill, which has been made part of the intelligence authorization bill, would make it a felony for anyone who had or has a security clearance to willfully disclose any "properly classified" information in an unauthorized manner. Rather than protect true national secrets, the law is designed to intimidate potential whistle-blowers from coming forward with information that could be embarrassing to the government.

    Disclosure of particularly sensitive classified information is already a crime. There exists a series of laws that punish government officials who give away secrets on our nuclear weapons, our military operations and the names of our foreign operatives. But what this bill would do is massively expand the ability of the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation for leaks of the kind that routinely form the basis of news stories on foreign affairs and the competence of our military and intelligence services.

    Recent stories that relied in part on classified information include accounts on the current state of the Iraqi missile program and Russia's sales of military technology to terrorist states. Of course, one of the most famous examples of the leaking of classified information was Daniel Ellsberg's disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. Despite the government's bluster, the publication of those documents in no way threatened our national security. They were vital to informing the public debate on how the United States became mired in the Vietnam War.

    The bill before the president goes to the heart of government accountability and whether the people have a right to be informed of what their government is doing. It would also enlist the news media as an enforcement mechanism for the classification system. Reporters would be expected to turn in their sources and could be jailed if they refused. As the American Society of Newspaper Editors said in a letter, "The role of news entities ... is to shed light on the activities of government, not to be the government's enforcement agents."

    If the system of classifying material were a highly selective and judicious one that was thoroughly vetted by another branch of government, then maybe this legislation wouldn't be so dangerous to freedom of speech. But the current classification system is within the control of the executive branch, which is notorious for over-classifying information, frequently to shield embarrassing documents from the public.

    While the bill has the support of the Justice Department, Clinton should not want to be remembered as the president who signed an "Official Secrets Act." There have been no public hearings on the measure, and even House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, is expressing grave concerns about the measure's constitutionality.

    Government officials who disclose classified information already jeopardize their security clearance and job. There is no need to pile on with heavy fines and prison time, unless the purpose is to give bumbling or corrupt bureaucrats an even more secure place to hide.

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