- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Whistle-blowing is almost as American as apple pie. The United States has long prided itself on a free, vigilant and powerful media that often helps strengthen national security by exposing negligence or abuse on the part of government bureaucrats. Indeed, whistle-blowers who reach out to media outlets are, for the most part, a brave bunch, who face possible retaliation from superiors for their acts of courage. Unfortunately, this fine American tradition could be undermined by legislation that would crack down on unauthorized disclosures.
Today, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will hold a hearing on how national security is best served. President George W. Bush has yet to weigh in on this issue. Attorney General John Ashcroft and CIA Director George J. Tenet will be testifying before the committee today. So will scholars, media representatives and legal experts.
Central to discussion today will be "anti-leak" legislation reintroduced by Sen. Richard Shelby. Mr. Shelby's bill, vetoed by President Bill Clinton last year, essentially criminalizes whistle-blowing by government employees, making government workers subject to three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 for leaking classified material. Although legislation to protect national secrets may reflexively seem reasonable, it is unnecessary, and even injurious, to national security.
For starters, the government, in its often exaggerated attempt to protect itself rather than its vital secrets, designates even the most arcane materials classified. Therefore, Mr. Shelby's bill, which infringes on First Amendment rights, would give bureaucrats very broad ability to prevent all kinds of information from reaching the public. Furthermore, U.S. law already prohibits government employees from leaking information that compromises national security, reveals covert agents, aids foreign governments or discloses cryptographic information. During the Clinton administration, it was government's failure to properly guard state secrets that made national security vulnerable, not whistle-blowing activity.
In fact, few administrations prove the importance of whistle-blowing more than the Clinton White House. Bill Gertz, a reporter for this newspaper, has broken many news stories crucial to national security through his access to whistle-blowers. "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," said the Far Eastern Economic Review last October. "He is the journalist to whom frustrated intelligence officers and congressional aides turn when they have damaging information about China to leak." More recently, on Aug. 28, Mr. Gertz revealed that, according to U.S. intelligence and military officials, China has stepped up deployments of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan.
Criminalizing whistle-blowing is a myopic approach to national security. In weighing the damage that can be done through unauthorized disclosures, Mr. Shelby and other lawmakers have lost sight of the importance of holding government accountable. Whistle-blowing is a distinguished, vital and very American tradition.


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