Proponents of the Intelligence Authorization Act were sent into an uproar this week after President Clinton vetoed the controversial piece of legislation. After a difficult process of deliberation, Clinton vetoed the act to the chagrin of authorities such as Janet Reno and organizations such as the CIA. However, Clinton’s action champions the right of free speech and the right of the press to keep the public informed.
The Intelligence Authorization Act itself seems ordinary. It is fiscal in nature — legislation authorizing the distribution of funds to various governmental intelligence agencies for 2001. Buried within it, though, is an “”anti-leak”” clause, so termed because it makes the leaking of classified information by a government official a felony punishable by three years in prison.
Current law criminalizes the leaking of defense-related classified information and other types of highly sensitive information related to national security. The Intelligence Authorization Act’s clause would have created sweeping changes with the potential to impinge free speech.
For one, the broad nature of the clause’s language caused confusion among members of Congress, proving that it would be difficult to enforce. Confusion ensued in Congressional debates as to whether the clause would be applicable to members of Congress themselves, and whether those who benefit from the information leaked would be subject to persecution.
It is not difficult to see why this aspect of the clause would be a matter of concern to those with a vested interest in protecting free speech. The editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post sent letters to Clinton,urging him to veto the legislation. Critics of the act recognized immediately that it would have been an attack on the roots of democracy to leave the press susceptible to persecution for informing the people.
The clause’s broad language also caused legislators to wonder if its wording would allow the Executive Branch free reign to determine what denotes “”classified”” information.
Unlike previous provisions, the Intelligence Authorization Act’s clause does not specifically state that matters such as Executive Branch gaffes cannot be classified. If the clause had become law, a president with a pernicious past could have exploited its harsh penalties to his advantage: Imagine what would happen if a president were to classify a major flub, only to prosecute the government official who leaked it to the press.
The term “”classified”” would no longer denote a status of secrecy for the protection of the nation — it would come to mean anything that a department or a high-ranking official did not want known publicly.
Even those who favored the act’s passage did not jump to conclude that it would result in a tighter seal around matters of sensitivity. Last week Reno was asked at a news conference how the act would assist the prosecution of those who leak classified information, as there are so few cases of such prosecution now.
“”I don’t think there is a reluctance to prosecute the person who leaks information,”” Reno replied, “”but finding that person while at the same time honoring the First Amendment interests of the media is a very difficult task.”” Thus Reno did not assert that the clause would result in more prosecutions.
Though it may be naive, it is reasonable for an employer to expect that his employee will be faithful and truthful. In most cases this is for the good of the company as a whole. In government, the situation functions differently: Though a breach of trust can harm the nation, it is imbued with the potential to affect the nation positively as well.
Experience tells us that leaks to the media, even of “”classified”” information, do more good than harm. The most prominent examples of this are the cases involving the Pentagon Papers and, of course, the Watergate scandal. No one can deny the significance of these two events in shaping the public’s consciousness on issues they should have known about.
The government should expect fealty from its employees, but people should also expect the truth from their government. As we cannot generally rely on our government to keep us informed of issues that can affect us greatly, the importance of the media’s ability to do this becomes tantamount.
It remains to be seen whether the Intelligence Authorization Act is gone for good. Its critics and its proponents alike are vehement, but its critics may prove to be the stronger side. If so, it can only be hoped that our next president will have the clarity of mind to recognize the legislation for what it is — an attempt to restrict the rights guaranteed to the people and the press.