WASHINGTON — President Clinton vetoed a bill Saturday 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 people who disclose especially sensitive information, such as the names of intelligence agents or the plans for nuclear weapons. Usually, however, prosecutors must show that 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 effect or the reason for the disclosure.
Proponents said the new enforcement power would stem the flow of leaks from inside the government. CIA Director George J. Tenet 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.
Even Conservatives and Liberals Agree
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-San Francisco) 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."
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," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.).
The bungled prosecution of nuclear weapon scientist Wen Ho Lee also may have played a role in passage of the bill. Some congressional Republicans, alarmed at the possible loss of nuclear secrets, pointed out earlier this year that prosecutors did not have clear authority to go after those who reveal classified information unless they also could show the damaging effect of the leaks.
It's Hard to Find the Source of Leaks
It is often difficult to prove such damage. While leaks are many, prosecutions are few because it is hard for investigators to determine who was the source.
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 made it a felony for anyone to "knowingly and willfully disclose . . . any classified information."
On Monday, leaders of four major news organizations--the Newspaper Assn. of America, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times--urged Clinton to veto the bill. They noted that the United States had never adopted "an official secrets act," as many nations have.
Almost routinely, information regarding the military and foreign affairs is deemed "classified" by the government, sometimes even after it has been publicly disclosed.
Perhaps the most famous example of this came in 1971 with the "Pentagon Papers," which consisted mostly of a history of the Vietnam War compiled by the Defense Department.
When the New York Times and the Washington Post began to publish the documents, Nixon administration prosecutors went to court, arguing that the publication of classified information was damaging to national security. Their claim foundered when lawyers for the newspapers were able to show that the supposedly secret information came from public documents or consisted merely of assessments offered by high-ranking officials.
In his veto message, Clinton agreed that disclosures of secret information can be "extraordinarily harmful" to the nation's security and said he would support a "more narrowly drawn provision" to punish leakers.
"We must always tread cautiously when considering measures that may limit public discussion, even when those measure are intended to achieve laudable, indeed necessary, goals," he said.