Groups to Congress: Don’t Hurt Openness and Accountability in Zeal to Stop Leaks

On June 15 several coalition partners and other open government allies joined in sending a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees urging them to carefully consider any legislation intended to stop leaks of classified national security information.

A look back at the last time Congress waded into the issue of stopping leaks is instructive for highlighting the complex range of issues involved, and the possible dangers created by some "solutions." In 2000 Congress passed anti-leaks legislation as part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 Intelligence Authorization Act. The problems openness advocates cited with the legislation: there are already laws that clearly ban the disclosure of classified information and allow for the prosecution of established national security threats; vague wording in the proposal made it a crime to disclose information that that the person has reason to believe has been classified; and the proposal did nothing to protect people who are blowing the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse by the federal government. The proposal was attached to the bill and cleared for the President's signature into law without referral to the Judiciary Committees and without a single open hearing where Congress could hear from experts in the field about the effect the bill could have on our civil liberties and the public’s right to hold the government accountable. President Clinton cited many of these concerns when he vetoed the bill in November 2000.

Hasty action by Congress to pass a bill runs a real risk of writing into law policies that not only do not work but also endanger other critical national priorities. Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org said, “While the goal of protecting legitimate secrets is honorable, poorly considered legislation could make it easier for people in the government to keep a lid on information that is embarrassing or proves illegality.” We urge Congress to give full and careful consideration to any proposal to stop leaks.

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