- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

ON MEDIA

Secret memos, personal letters, eyes-only documents, rumors: this is the stuff of news leaks that fuel blockbuster stories. There are good leaks and bad leaks, however.

The good ones are accurate, have proper context and inform the public of real wrongdoing. Lousy and downright abusive leaks are misleading, biased and undermine national security, the justice system and public trust in the media itself.

Plug those leaks, however, and journalists get righteous and excited.

This week, major print and broadcast news organizations attacked Sen. Richard C. Shelby's proposed "anti-leak" legislation, which would make it a crime for government employees to share any properly classified information with journalists. Current law forbids only the trafficking of defense-related materials that could "injure" America.

The Alabama lawmaker is the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; his legislation is scheduled to be voted upon Wednesday.

"This frightening bill deserves far more scrutiny than can be offered in a hearing because it will inevitably chill interaction between the government and the public," said Tim McGuire, editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The legislation would "deter whistleblowers, and that means stories like the Pentagon papers, human rights abuses and the Iran-Contra affair would never have come to the attention of the public," Mr. McGuire said.

There are other uncomfortable consequences.

"Not only will the provision subject the news media to more subpoenas as prosecutors seek to identify 'leakers,' but the law will also lead to the practice of classifying more information as 'secret' than is legitimately necessary," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

"Zealous prosecutors" would order search warrants and wiretaps of reporters, she said, turning them into "agents of government enforcement" and thwarting their "essential role as government watchdog."

The Newspaper Association of America, CNN, the New York Times and The Washington Post have demanded a delay on the Shelby bill because it "would destroy the delicate balance that has been achieved in this country between the public's right to know and the legitimate demands of national security." They want an extended discussion.

This is a virtual repeat performance of a year ago, when Mr. Shelby presented the same legislation. It was vetoed by President Clinton, a move the senator called a "capitulation" to the news media. President Bush has yet to weigh in on the situation.

Ideally, some brief and productive dialogue will ensue, establishing a consensus that pacifies the journalistic craving for buzz and First Amendment concerns, while preserving both the sanctity and dignity of America's gravest secrets. The situation demands thoughtful diplomacy from both sides.

News leaks are a relatively new tool, emerging after New York Times reporter James Reston won the Pulitzer Prize for a story based on Allied secrets leaked from the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which established the United Nations.

Almost six decades later, the threat on news leaks troubles the mighty. "It's really bad news," noted John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America.

• Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.


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