After the November election, your government is likely to be hard at work making it harder to find out what is going on in foreign policy.
The U.S. Senate will take up Senate Bill 3554. The bill is a lot about money — $52.6 billion for U.S. intelligence activities in 2013. It’s also laced with changes designed to crack down on leaks.
There’s no argument that illegal intelligence leaks continue to be a problem. They can ruin careers, jeopardize plans and get people killed. There have been recent leaks about drone strikes, a cyber-attack on Iran and penetration of an al-Qaida cell in Yemen.
But many of the bill’s “solutions” create problems.
Section 505 of the bill would ban consulting for the media. Journalists couldn’t talk to intelligence experts to ensure a story is correct or wouldn’t do harm.
Section 506 would put an end to all “background” or “off-the- record” briefings, except by the director, deputy director or designated public affairs personnel. Lower-level employees who may be more knowledgeable about what’s actually going on would not be able to talk at all — even with authorization and even about unclassified information.
Background press briefings help the media get the story right. This change would likely mean fewer stories and less depth.
Section 511 would allow a person who was found to have disclosed classified information illegally to have his pension revoked by an agency director. Revoking an employee’s pension can already happen. The change is in giving an agency director broad authority to do so without a requirement for a whiff of due process. There’s no procedure in the bill or requirement of a legal conviction. There is also no clear indication of how this change in law would affect whistleblowers who reveal illegal government activity. The 511 section has another flaw pointed out by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. It creates a special punishment for employees who work for an intelligence agency and does not cover the thousands of other federal employees who also have access to sensitive information.
Nobody likes illegal leaks. That doesn’t mean slapping on another layer of penalties or gagging the media’s ability to get a story right is going to improve things.
Wyden saw problems with this bill when it was in committee and voted against it. We urge him to fight it in the full Senate.