From afar, a new measure that puts tighter constraints on conversations between intelligence agencies and journalists might appear reasonable. It follows a series of unauthorized disclosures about the use of a terrorist "kill list" and cyberattacks by the United States on Iran — leaks that are under federal investigation. But the measure passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee this summer would go too far in chilling the exchange of information on national security issues. The legislation fails to appreciate the serious downside of keeping the public in the dark about potentially illegal, fraudulent or wasteful activities by the government's massive security apparatus.
Despite troubling aspects, the amendment to the 2013 intelligence authorization bill passed through the committee with only Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon objecting. One of the most pernicious provisions limits contact between the press and intelligence agencies to the director or deputy, or a designated public affairs officer. Only one of those officials may give background or off-the-record information.
That means an essential avenue for reporters, and by extension the public, to understand the workings of various agencies — background talks and briefings with agency experts — would be prohibited. If a reporter gets information from an overseas source about a U.S. intelligence operation, he or she could no longer check out its veracity with someone in ground-level operations. Out of necessity, closing off American intelligence sources would give more weight to overseas sources, which itself could damage national security.
Dozens of news reports in recent years have been essential to informing public debate on important policy issues, from the use of torture on prisoners to unlawful domestic surveillance. But the measure provides no exceptions for people who disclose government wrongdoing or extralegal activities.
The legislation also includes a burdensome requirement that the intelligence community report to Congress whenever it intends to disclose previously classified information. It features a constitutionally suspect "talking heads" provision that bars anyone who had a top security clearance from being a paid commentator on intelligence issues for a year.
But the most disturbing aspect is that the bill builds on the current system of classification. It fails to distinguish between material that would truly damage national security if disclosed and material that has been overclassified. Under the bill, if a member of the intelligence community discloses even benign classified information, he or she risks being stripped of a pension.
Conveniently, the measure heaps these new rules and punishments on intelligence agency employees in the executive branch while failing to cover leaks by congressional staff. If this were truly needed to protect national security, then all potential sources of leaks within the government would be included.
There is a concerted pushback by civil liberties groups and former intelligence officials suggesting that the measure doesn't have broad support. The White House has not been supportive, either. When Congress returns to session, this legislation should be slowed down and overhauled.