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Espionage Case Pits CIA Against News Media

May 18, 1986|David Wise | David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and secrecy. and

With certain narrow exceptions, including Section 798, present law does not forbid the disclosure of classified information as such. Last year, the CIA sent a draft bill to the White House that would have made leaks of classified data a crime. But the measure was not sent to Congress, in part because the Justice Department thought it might achieve much the same result through the conviction of Morison.

"The espionage statute was not intended to deal with leaks," Lynch said. "The history of the government trying to get a statute dealing with leaks proves that." At least two of the stories that roused Casey's ire dealt with the U.S. intercept of Libyan messages to its People's Bureau in East Berlin. Ironically, President Reagan himself disclosed the content of those messages in a nationwide television address on April 14. Reagan paraphrased the messages, arguing that they proved Libyan responsibility for the bombing of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, citing that terrorist act as justification for the U.S. raid against Libya.

Although such communications intercepts have been disclosed by the government in the past--after the Soviets shot down the Korean jetliner, for example--the President took an unprecedented step in discussing the content of the Libyan cables. He was, by implication, revealing that NSA had broken the Libyan code. Intercepted diplomatic messages have not been officially divulged in the past, precisely because the government normally does not want to reveal which codes it can read.

Intelligence officials, however, draw a distinction between presidential disclosures, which they say may on rare occasions be required, and unauthorized leaks. George V. Lauder, the CIA's director of public affairs, argues that Casey is responsible by law for protecting "sophisticated technical systems that cost billions of dollars." It makes little difference, Lauder maintains, whether information about such systems is passed on to the Soviets by spies or printed in the press; the result is "equally harmful."

On the other hand, James Bamford, the author of "The Puzzle Palace," a detailed book about NSA activities, contends that applying Section 798 to the press would create an official secrets act in America. Reporters, he points out, "can't be expected to know what is classified and what isn't. The only way to be sure would be to have newsmen check their stories with the government every time. That's the way they do it in the Soviet Union."

The Reagan Justice Department considered prosecuting Bamford for writing his book, but did not proceed. Earlier, the Ford Administration apparently considered prosecuting three reporters under Section 798. Ford's former press secretary, Ron Nessen, has identified them as Bob Woodward, of the Washington Post, and Tad Szulc and Nicholas Horrock, then of the New York Times.

Damage from leakage is certainly arguable but prosecuting the press for passing leakage along would create an entirely different America. It is not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.

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