Congress and the Public Should Think Long and Hard about How to Handle Leaks of Classified Info

In response to recent leaks of highly-classified national security information, the leadership of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees have announced that they are working together to develop legislation that gives the federal government the tools it needs to stop leaks. The legislation will be added to the Senate's version of the annual intelligence authorization bill, and — as the House already passed its version of the authorization bill — be included in the final conference package that will be sent to the President before the end of the session. While Congress' goal of doing something to protect the US' legitimate secrets is honorable, their strategy for getting the bill to the President as quickly as possible could end up producing legislation that hurts other critical national interests.

There are a range of issues that need to be fully explored, with input from the public and experts in the field, before we can know if any legislation to stop leaks will fix the problem or even make it worse. For example, is improperly and/or over-classified information clogging up the system and making it harder to control real secrets? Do the number of security clearances need to be reduced, and, if so, how do we ensure that information is shared where needed? How will the legislation be written to make sure that whistleblowers are not hurt?

Furthermore, Congress must recognize and explore the fact that, while leaks are a real problem, the truth is that the American public needs access to at least some information about how our government is conducting itself abroad and at home. While the President and high-ranking Administration officials can talk publicly about sensitive programs as they choose, the public has no legal way to access any information about the program and the opportunities for meaningful public debate are blocked. In the proximate instance of concern, the use of drones to kill individuals – including American citizens – we need to have a serious national discussion informed by as much information as possible.

We urge Congress to pause, examine the issues carefully, and to not pass potentially bad legislation in its zeal to "do something." Properly dealing with this serious issue requires nothing less than the most serious of consideration and widest possible public input.

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