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By: Todd Shields

Critics Say Measure Could Chill Free Speech

The U.S. House on a voice vote late Thursday gave final congressional passage to legislation that would, for the first time, make it a criminal offense to leak classified material.

Proponents said the provision, part of a broad intelligence spending measure, is needed to stem harmful disclosures of national security secrets. Critics said the measure threatens to chill the free flow of information about government by intimidating whistleblowers. They said reporters could face pressure from prosecutors eager to learn their sources.

The measure goes to the White House, which has indicated President Clinton will sign it. The bill also contains a measure aimed at speeding declassification of federal documents by creating a permanent board to oversee that process.

The anti-leaking provision would augment laws that already set criminal penalties for leaks that harm national security. The new provision eliminates the need to demonstrate any harm.

Several lawmakers rose on the House floor to level the first sustained congressional criticism against the measure, which has faced no open hearings and virtually no debate on its path from a Senate committee. It emerged from a House-Senate conference over the objections of House members, representatives said Thursday.

“I am strongly opposed,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “For the first time in our nation’s history we will have an official secrets act … We should remember how difficult it has been in our nation’s history to examine the official version of the facts.”

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said the measure advanced in a “sneaky way” without examination of its implications for First Amendment rights to free speech. He mentioned significant news stories that would have triggered prosecutions under the proposed law, including the Pentagon Papers examination of official policy toward Vietnam, CIA involvement in the overthrow of a democratic government in Chile, and China’s alleged military aid to North Korea and Pakistan.

But backers of the measure said U.S. security has been harmed by leaks in recent years. “Leaking classified government information is not a right or a privilege,” said Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., chair of the House intelligence committee. “Damage has been done.”

Goss called the measure “narrowly crafted,” adding, “It is not an affront to the First Amendment.”

The measure originated with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chair of the Senate’s intelligence committee. In a statement he called constitutional objections “a red herring.”

The Clinton administration earlier expressed reservations about the provision’s possible impact upon press freedom, but has decided not to challenge it. In its formal assessment of the bill, the White House lauded the declassification initiative. But Clinton aides were silent on the leaking provision, and said the administration is “generally supportive” of the bill.

Todd Shields ( is the Washington editor for E&P.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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