NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Freedom of Information · Feb. 26, 2007
Senator seeks to broaden espionage law
Feb. 26, 2007 · A U.S. senator is pushing a law so broadly drafted it could leave journalists exposed to criminal liability for publishing information concerning the government’s counterterrorism efforts, open government advocates warn.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) is seeking an amendment to an espionage law that would criminalize the publication of information “concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate, or prevent terrorist activity,” according to a report by Cox Newspapers. Kyl’s amendment would also boost the penalty for violating that provision, from 10 years in prison to 20 years.
Critics contend that this broadly worded provision is unnecessary to protect the government’s classified intelligence methods, which are already prohibited from disclosure under the espionage statute Kyl seeks to change.
Instead, open government advocates say Kyl’s law amounts to an Official Secrets Act – a reference to the British laws criminalizing the unauthorized disclosure of government information – that will stifle whistleblowers and chill the news media’s attempts to report on the effectiveness of and other issues surrounding the government’s anti-terrorism activities.
“It seems the intent is to go after the press and go after organizations like the ACLU to prevent and prohibit and chill a legitimate debate of policy concerns,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org.
Kyl is seeking to tack this change onto the Federal Agency Data Mining Reporting Act, S.236, which is currently under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is set for a hearing on Thursday. Kyl’s intentions became known late last week, and to date there has been no public congressional discussion of the issue.
“It has nothing to do with that legislation, this had no hearings, they’ve done no study, no expert debate, and it seems to be a backhanded way to get at the media,” McDermott said.
Kyl’s proposed amendment would broaden Section 798, a law passed in 1950 that makes it a crime to disclose classified “communications intelligence” information, defined as “all procedures and methods used in the interception of communications and the obtaining of information from such communications by other than the intended recipients.”
The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that includes The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in an analysis that the proposal could hamper the flow of information to Congress and the public and is “inconsistent” with the existing law.
“If the Kyl amendment is adopted, the government would have vast power to prosecute an individual merely for ‘communicating’ or ‘publishing’ any information ‘concerning’ terrorism,” the group’s analysis states. “The potential for abuse is significant and the chilling affect on the public’s – and Congress’ – right to know would be substantial.”
(S. 236, Federal Agency Data Mining Reporting Act of 2007) — NW