The fiscal cliff may be grabbing all the headlines as Congress returns today for its lame-duck session. But the public's right to know what its government is doing is also in jeopardy. Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio need to stand for open government and insist that provisions aimed at controlling government information be reconsidered, lest the American public be kept in the dark.
The provisions of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 causing concern were passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which includes Nelson and Rubio, without a single public hearing. How committee members voted is also cloaked. Now the bill could be on a fast track for passage via "unanimous consent" once the Senate takes up business starting today.
But the provisions under Title V deserve much more scrutiny. They are being sold as a reasonable attempt to plug unauthorized national security leaks, but they are too vague and repressive and will affect how much the public can learn about the nation's massive national security apparatus. These measures are not in the House version and should be removed before Senate passage.
Among the bill's most pernicious aspects: It would prohibit all but politically appointed intelligence officials or their designees from providing off-the-record or background briefings for journalists or others. This would silence sources that illuminate matters of vital public interest, leaving the job only to those who have the most to lose if something embarrassing or illegal is disclosed. Recent examples where anonymous members of the intelligence community were relied upon include reports on U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation and Iran's tangible support for the Syrian regime. Without domestic intelligence sources, journalists may be forced to rely more heavily on foreign sources who may skew the news to their advantage.
Another part of the bill would bar former government employees who had top secret clearance and who have left the government within the last year from providing the media with analysis or commentary on classified intelligence matters. The broad language means recent former intelligence officials couldn't participate in public debates on vital issues such as the treatment of detainees. These are the very people who have most valuable, pertinent information on the fraudulent, wasteful or even harmful activities of the country's intelligence agencies. They shouldn't be gagged.
This damaging addition is an effort to further reduce the amount of information that makes it into public view and is a response to disclosures that upset some members of Congress, such as the Obama administration's use of a terrorist "kill list." But the measure is aimed exclusively at employees in executive branch agencies and not congressional staffers who are often the source of intelligence-related leaks. If this were truly a matter of national security, the new rules would apply universally.
Slowing down the measure is the first step. The second is to have a more careful vetting and analysis of this heavy-handed effort. Nelson and Rubio, Senate Intelligence Committee members, should use their influence to stand for the public's right to know what its government is doing.