|NMU||WASHINGTON, D.C.||Prior Restraints||Nov 7, 2000|
Clinton vetoes ‘badly flawed’ felony leaker measure
- After Congress passed a provision giving leakers of classified information up to three years in prison, President Clinton quashed the measure by veto saying it could chill activities “at the heart of democracy.”
President Bill Clinton on Nov. 4 vetoed a measure that would authorize federal felony charges against leakers of classified information after media and watchdog groups urged him to do so and a spate of editorials appeared in newspapers around the country calling the measure “an official secrets act.”
In a written statement, Clinton called the bill “a badly flawed provision” that could “unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of democracy.” He voiced agreement that unauthorized disclosures can be harmful to the country’s national security interests, but said that this measure was not the best response to that.
The president said it is his obligation to protect not only government’s “vital information from improper disclosure,” but also “to protect the rights of citizens to receive the information necessary for democracy to work.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote the provision into the intelligence authorization bill, which easily passed both Houses of Congress with no public hearings despite widespread criticism that it would make felons of whistleblowers.
Both Shelby and Attorney General Janet Reno, who cleared the bill as posing no constitutional problem, had noted that journalists would not be punished under the measure. However, in comments to congressional committees and the president, journalists pointed out that well-meaning sources would no longer provide information the public needs to assess the government and that journalists would be vulnerable to subpoenas when the government sought to identify leakers.
Disclosure of classified defense information that results in harm to the national security is already a felony, but disclosures of other information has been dealt with administratively.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla..) had moved the measure despite vigorous complaints by House Judciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and ranking minority member John Conyers (D-Mich.) that a bill creating new criminal penalties belonged in their committee.
In Clinton’s veto, he urged Congress to revisit the issues later this month.
More than 30 press, public interest groups and professors signed a letter objecting to the bill for its broad sweep and its strikes against the public’s right to know. The Reporters Committee was among the signatories. The New York Times and The Washington Post also wrote the president objecting to the measure.
(H.R. 4392) — RD
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press