Clinton vetoes leaks bill

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Saturday vetoed a bill that would have sharply expanded the government’s power to prosecute anyone who revealed official secrets, including whistle-blowers or even ambassadors who briefed news reporters.

"Although well intentioned, (the bill) is overbroad and may unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy," the president said.

Currently, the government can prosecute persons who disclose especially sensitive information, such as the names of intelligence agents or the plans for nuclear weapons. Usually, however, prosecutors must show the disclosure of classified information damaged the nation’s security.

The new provision, which was discussed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and passed on voice vote, would have made it a crime to disclose "any classified information," regardless of its impact or the reason for the disclosure.

Proponents said the new enforcement power would stem the flow of leaks from inside the government. George Tenet, the director the CIA, had complained to congressional leaders that the government "leaks like a sieve."

But critics, including leading news organizations, said the bill went too far and would stifle public debate about national security or permit officials to cover up mistakes. They noted that a vast amount of information is deemed classified.

Both conservatives and liberals condemned the bill.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said the provision amounted to an "official secrets act" that would "silence whistle-blowers." Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress was "foolish to give a blank check to the executive branch" that would allow it to punish its internal critics.

Clinton’s veto "comes as a great relief," said Steven Aftergood, a security specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. "This would have given the executive branch extraordinary power to control disclosures about national security matters," he said.

But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee faulted the president’s action. "To veto this critical piece of legislation now is disruptive and may send a dangerous message to those who would harm U.S. interests," Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., said.

No public hearings were held on the new anti-leak bill, which was discussed by the House and Senate intelligence committees. The provision to broaden the prosecution power was added to the Intelligence Authorization Act, which was passed on voice votes in the Senate and House in mid-October.

The new provision would have it a felony for anyone to "knowingly and willfully disclose … any classified information."

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