Clinton Vetoes Leakers Bill

N E W   Y O R K, Nov. 4, 2000 -- President Clinton today vetoed a bill thatwould have criminalized the leaking of government secrets.

The legislation, he said, might “chill legitimate activities that areat the heart of a democracy.”

The proposal had drawn criticism from news organizations which said it would stifle their ability to obtain information vital to the public.

“We must never forget that the free flow of information isessential to a democratic society,” Clinton said in a statement.

He cited the “badly flawed provision” as the reason he vetoeda bill that authorizes spending for the CIA, National SecurityAgency and other intelligence activities for the fiscal year thatbegan Oct. 1.

The total intelligence budget is classified and is not made public, but is believed to be about $30 billion.

More Specific Provisions

The president urged Congress “to pursue a more narrowly drawnprovision tested in public hearings so that those they representcan also be heard on this important issue.”

The provision would have extended penalties that now exist forleaking classified, national defense information, to the leaking ofother classified, but nondefense data that could harm the UnitedStates if made public or given to foreign governments.

Clinton said he agreed with congressional sponsors of thelegislation that unauthorized disclosures of classified information“can be extraordinarily harmful to United States national securityand that too many such disclosures occur.”

“Those who disclose classified information inappropriatelycommit a gross breach of the public trust and may recklessly putour national security at risk,” he said.

Clinton, however, said that in dispute was not the seriousnessof the problem but the best way to respond to it.

“As president ... it is my responsibility to protect not onlyour government’s vital information from improper disclosure butalso to protect the rights of citizens to receive the informationnecessary for democracy to work,” he said.

The president said it takes a careful balance to reconcile thegoals of protecting national security and the public’s right toknow. “This legislation does not achieve the proper balance,”Clinton said.

Four of the nation’s largest news organizations — CNN, TheWashington Post, The New York Times and the Newspaper Associationof America — asked Clinton last week to veto the bill.

They and other critics, including some from both parties inCongress, feared the measure could have silenced whistle-blowersand stopped news media from getting information to the public.

GOP Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, chairman of the HouseIntelligence Committee, has said the proposal was “narrowlycrafted to protect the rights that all Americans hold dear. It isnot, as some will say, an affront to the First Amendment,” whichprotects free speech.

Chilling Measure

Clinton said the measure could chill the legitimate activitiesof government officials.

“A desire to avoid the risk that their good faith choice ofwords—their exercise of judgment—could become the subject of acriminal referral for prosecution might discourage governmentofficials from engaging even in appropriate public discussion,press briefings, or other legitimate official activities,” Clintonsaid.

The legislation also could have also discouraged or restrainedformer government officials from teaching, writing of engaging “inany activity aimed at building public understanding of complexissues,” he said.

“Incurring such risks us unnecessary and inappropriate in asociety built on freedom of expression and the consent of thegoverned and is particularly inadvisable in a context in which therange of classified materials is so extensive,” he said.

“In such circumstances, this criminal provision would, in myview, create an undue chilling effect,” Clinton said.

Attorney General Janet Reno predicted last week that theprovision would have dramatically increased the number ofprosecutions. The proposal would have closed what she called “avery narrow gap” in existing law.

The only leak prosecution in recent memory occurred in 1985 whena Navy researcher was prosecuted for leaking a satellite photo of aSoviet Navy ship under construction to the publication, Jane’sFighting Ships. But there are numerous leak investigations thatfall short of prosecution, although some have lead to resignationsor administrative discipline.