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Ashcroft: No need for new law to punish leakers

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Oct 24, 2002    

Ashcroft: No need for new law to punish leakers

  • There is no immediate need for an “Official Secrets Act” to punish leakers of classified information, but the executive branch needs to take many new measures to protect against unauthorized disclosures, Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress Oct. 22 in a report it called for in legislation passed last year.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft concluded in a report to Congress Oct. 22 that new legislation is not necessary to punish officials who leak classified information, although he outlined vigorous steps to be taken by the administration to protect such information.

The report may lay to rest efforts in the past two Congresses to enact legislation dubbed an “Official Secrets Act” because, like the British legislation by the same name, it would have provided for the punishment of leakers of government information whether or not the leaks could cause harm.

Ashcroft acknowledged that “there is no comprehensive statute that provides criminal penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information irrespective of the type of information or recipient involved.”

But he said that current statutes “provide a legal basis to prosecute those who disclose classified information without authorization, if they can be identified.”

His rejection of future legislation was not absolute. Ashcroft said that “it may be” that carefully drafted legislation addressing unauthorized disclosures of classified information generally, rather than espionage “could enhance investigative efforts,” but he said that the practical benefit such laws would provide is unclear.

Congress passed an Intelligence Authorization Act in 2000 that would have automatically punished persons who leaked information, but at the strong urging of press organizations and other public interest groups, President Clinton vetoed the measure. There were efforts to revive that Congressional measure in the early days of President Bush’s administration but he did not support them.

Although the measure, introduced by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), carried no penalty against journalists who received leaked information, it threatened to cut off information at its source even when that information could cause no harm. Journalists pointed out that years of over-classification have resulted in too many secrets existing when there is no rationale for secrecy, and that officials fearing the inadvertent release of information that might or might not be classified would be loathe to talk to either reporters or the public.

Instead of reviving the measure, Congress in its intelligence authorization legislation for 2001 called for a “comprehensive review” of the protections of classified information by the attorney general along with the secretaries of defense, state and energy, the director of the CIA and others selected by the attorney general.

The review was culminated in Ashcroft’s report to Congress.

He recommended that the executive branch activate a wide range of measures to stem unauthorized disclosures; that all departments handling classified information take aggressive steps to punish leakers; and that the defense and justice departments and the CIA work together to improve enforcement of existing laws so that leakers can be deterred by the “real prospect ” of investigations and penalties.

He proposed a list of more than 30 measures to be taken within the executive branch including review of the current executive order on classification and increased use and penalty for violations of non-disclosure agreements signed by all persons given access to classified information.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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