August 27, 2001 11:00 pm

Whoa, Congress!

The U.S. Senate needs to put the brakes on an effort to criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Federal lawmakers should think about the impact an official secrets act would have on the publics right to know and the First Amendment. National security is important, but a secrecy law would cloud all classified information under the guise of national security.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a hearing on the proposal for next Tuesday and is scheduled to take up the bill the following day. The committee, of which Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is a member, needs to take more time before proceeding with a law that would virtually make whistleblowing a crime.

The proposal, requested by the CIA regularly since 1985, was included in the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2001. President Clinton vetoed the act because it contained a similar provision. The provision would discourage legitimate whistleblowers from exposing government misdeeds by subjecting them to criminal liability if they release any information that is classified. Such actions would be a crime, even if the leak defends national security against corruption or bureaucratic abuse of power shielded by secrecy.

The government needs to find ways to make sure that national security is not being threatened due to leaks. But a blanket secrecy law is not the way. Over the course of the past 30 years, had such a provision in the law been in place, the Pentagon Papers would never have come to light, the Iran-Contra affair would have gone unnoticed, safety violations in nuclear weapons manufacturing processes would never have been revealed, and lapses in security creating vulnerability to espionage, such as the case of former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard, would never have been uncovered.

A full discussion of the issues surrounding secrecy must take place. Rushing such a sweeping law through the Senate would not serve the interests of security or Americans right to know what their government is doing.

Laws are in place to punish the disclosure of certain types of classified information that could impact an individuals safety, national security or national defense. Congress has repeatedly rejected demands for an official secrets act even during World War I, World War II and the Cold War. The provision would discourage whistleblowers from coming forward with information that could shed light on inappropriate or unlawful government activities.

Is that the kind of restraint Americans want? Would it serve the publics need and right to know?

The provision raises too many concerns. At the very least, the Senate needs to air the issue fully so that Americans know what their elected officials are considering and give them time to weigh in on the proposal. At best, the committee should scrap the idea.