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House anti-terrorist bill could sanction journalists

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Prior Restraints         Oct 8, 2001    

House anti-terrorist bill could sanction journalists

  • A House anti-terrorism measure includes a provision which could punish journalists who publish revelations of covert agents, but the Senate version of that measure eliminates it.

The 36 members of the House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 3 unanimously approved an anti-terrorism bill containing a measure that would make persons who disclose the names of covert agents subject to sanctions as terrorists. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee did not include that provision in its longer counterpart measure.

The comprehensive anti-terrorism bills were on a fast track the week of Oct. 8. Attorney General John Ashcroft had pressed Congress to pass a measure expanding the Department of Justice’s law enforcement powers and to do so by October 5.

The House bill, introduced by judiciary chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), defines a “federal terrorism offense” by reference to a number of specific crimes described in the U.S. Code. With the exception of the citation to the Intelligence Agents Identities Act of 1982 which prohibits identification of covert agents, the measures involve crimes of violence against persons or property.

The House bill only adopts the language from the act describing the identification of covert agents. It does not adopt the section limiting sanctions to the person who actually discloses the identities, precluding journalists who receive and publish that information from being charged with conspiracy. Without protective language of other sections, journalists could also be punished for not reporting that another person is about to publish an identity.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Senate measure after a hearing Oct. 3 of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

Testifying at that hearing, Morton Halperin called the House proposal “extraordinary.” He said the law preventing disclosure of the names of covert agents addresses a speech crime and has “no place” on a list of federal terrorism crimes. Halperin, a veteran civil liberties advocate and chairman of the advisory board of the Center for National Security Studies, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Before Congress enacted the agents identities act, he said, it insisted upon safeguards to ensure that the law would not prevent the press from publishing information it had acquired by legitimate means. For example, Congress inserted a bar on conspiracy provisions so that a reporter could not be accused of conspiring with a source, he said. This protection and many others would be swept away, Halperin said, if this measure passes. Journalists found guilty of this “terrorism” could be subject to sanctions including RICO violations.

(Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act of 2001, H.R. 2975; Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001(USA Act) S. 1510) RD

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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