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The Providence Journal-Bulletin
November 15, 2000

A balance on secrecy

One of the hardest things that a free and open society has to do is to protect national security secrets without illegitimately and sometimes dangerously protecting government from public scrutiny.

It is a question that President Clinton grappled with earlier this month, when he wisely vetoed a measure that would have gone too far in punishing people for revealing information that officials stamped "classified."

The new language, included in a 2001 authorization bill, would make it a federal crime to leak any classified information. Supporters of tougher laws say they are trying to halt what they call a flood of classified information to the news media in recent years. Some of it, they say, has even damaged national security.

Clearly, our legitimate national secrets must be protected. But critics of this clampdown argued that the language is far too broad. Bureaucrats seeking to cover their tracks for wrongdoing could easily stamp documents "classified," and have a dangerous legal club to use against those who might otherwise speak out.

That is why more than 20 organizations -- including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Federation of American Scientists joined forces at the 11th hour to urge a veto.

"If such a provision had been law," they wrote in a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, "the public might never have seen or known about the Pentagon Papers, evidence exposing human-rights violations, such as the My Lai massacre, false statements concerning leaks of radiation or other toxic substances on workers and into the environment (and) sloppy security creating vulnerability to terrorist attack at defense and national energy facilities."

It is troubling, too, that hearings on this expansion of federal punishment for whistle-blowers took place behind closed doors and without public input.

Of course, news organizations have sometimes shown too little concern for the nation's legitimate security interests. (Needless to say, we would not have wanted the press to divulge, for example, the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, under the rubric of "the public's right to know.") That is why a careful balance must be struck.

It is not easy to do that. But people who see serious wrongdoing taking place should not be subject to federal felony prosecution for leaking information simply because a bureaucrat has stamped it "classified." Under current law, government employees do risk felony prosecution for leaking information that threatens national security. That is as it should be. Mr. Clinton was right to veto this measure.

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