Congress will vote this week on legislation to criminalize whistle-blowing by government employees. If approved, this legislation would severely curtail the public’s access to information which is embarrassing to government officials and important for Americans to know.
Already, U.S. law prohibits government employees from leaking information that would compromise national security, reveal covert agents, aid foreign governments or disclose cryptographic information. If Congress passes a provision included in the Senate Intelligence Authorization Act of 2001, government officials could face three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 for leaking classified information. Since the government marks even the most arcane materials classified, this legislation would give government broad ability to prevent all kinds of information from reaching the public. Government employees would clearly be less inclined to leak classified documents to reporters if threatened with jail time. The legislation further infringes on the First Amendment right to free expression.
The Senate recently passed the legislation and the Justice Department has endorsed it. The House hasn’t yet voted on the legislation passed in the Senate and will be reviewing it this week in the House-Senate conference.
At the conference, lawmakers would be wise to remember the overall benefit of unauthorized disclosures. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, for example, gave Americans a much greater understanding of how their country became embroiled in the Vietnam War. And reporter Bill Gertz of The Washington Times, whose defense and intelligence sources are the envy of investigative reporters all over town, has been instrumental in informing Americans about weapons proliferation and the threat posed by rogue nations. The Far Eastern Economic Review reported in its Oct. 12 issue, “Almost every embarrassing story about China from its suspected military cooperation with North Korea and Pakistan to alleged spying activities at U.S. nuclear laboratories first reaches the public through a Gertz story. He is the journalist to whom frustrated intelligence officers and congressional aides turn when they have damaging information about China to leak.” The article said that “government officials are incensed that many of Gertz’s scoops are based on top-secret intelligence reports.”
But rather than criminalize unauthorized disclosures to journalists, government officials should instead do a better job of protecting strategic defense technology. The purpose of this legislation is to shield government from embarrassment, rather than protect vital state secrets. The House should reject it out of hand, and the Senate should be ashamed of approving it.