President Clinton has done the nation and our free society a favor by vetoing Congress' furtive attempt to create what would have amounted to an official secrets act.
Mr. Clinton was correct in asserting that the bill, while “well-intentioned,” was “overly broad and may unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.”
One of the best arguments for trashing this stealth measure came from the secretive way it passed Congress - closed-door hearings and only a voice vote. Virtually no one was on the record to justify the bill, which CIA Director George Tenet is said to have claimed is needed because government “leaks like a sieve.”
The bill would have created an unneeded extension of executive branch power to prosecute anyone who reveals so-called classified information. Under current law, leaks can be prosecuted if the disclosure damaged national security - unmasking a spy, for example. But this legislation, killing the proverbial gnat with a sledgehammer, would have gone overboard by creating a new crime - punishable by three years in jail - for disclosure of “any classified information.”
The problem, of course, is that a great deal of government information is stamped classified when it doesn't need to be. The Pentagon press officer pointed out that the proposal was so broad that he might be prosecuted for simply answering reporters' questions on sensitive subjects using classified material. And it would have jeopardized whistleblowers, who have protected the public interest by revealing wrongdoing on the part of government insiders.
In dealing with the delicate balance of protecting legitimate government secrets versus the public's right to know, Congress would have done well to heed a 1997 report by one of its own advisory panels, the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York.
The commission criticized what it called “a culture of secrecy” within government, which it said too often led to information being stamped classified in an attempt to protect officials and agencies rather than bona fide secrets.
“Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate,” the commission said. “This remains a dangerous world; some secrecy is vital to save lives, bring miscreants to justice, protect national security, and engage in effective diplomacy. Yet, as Justice Potter Stewart noted in his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, when everything is secret, nothing is secret.”
The commission recommended severely limiting classification of information so that only the most important matters are considered secret.
It ought to be a crime, as it now is, to reveal classified information that might aid a foreign government by exposing our intelligence agents or compromising our defense.
But if the next Congress sees the necessity to respond to the President's veto, it must do so openly and with a narrowly focused measure to protect one of our most-cherished liberties, the right to know what's going on inside government.