INSIDE THE BELTWAY: Hail to the chief: let's hope Clinton's veto takes anti-leak legislation off the table once and for all

Until you've worked in the government for a while, you really can't understand the absurd extent to which documents have become classified as 'secret,' 'top secret' or just plain 'confidential.' The issuance of parking passes, for example, can be classified, as well as the routine overseas assignment of clerks and, on occasion, that rare document that might actually damage the country if made public.

Until you've worked in the government for a while, you really can't understand the absurd extent to which documents have become classified as 'secret,' 'top secret' or just plain 'confidential.' The issuance of parking passes, for example, can be classified, as well as the routine overseas assignment of clerks and, on occasion, that rare document that might actually damage the country if made public.

Until you've worked in the government for a while, you really can't understand the absurd extent to which documents have become classified as 'secret,' 'top secret' or just plain 'confidential.' The issuance of parking passes, for example, can be classified, as well as the routine overseas assignment of clerks and, on occasion, that rare document that might actually damage the country if made public.

What makes all this relevant is a law vetoed by President Clinton last week that would have criminalized any government employee (until now, we called them 'whistleblowers') who passed along to a nongovernment employee (usually a journalist) any document an officious bureaucrat stamped as 'classified.'

PRWeek publicized this assault on our traditional freedoms in its October 30 issue and was joined by such diverse sources as the American Civil Liberties Union and William Safire, the extremely conservative columnist for The New York Times. All this probably contributed to Clinton's surprise veto.

Sure, the idea of a law permitting prosecution of people in the government who see corruption or injustice and 'blow the whistle' by providing outsiders with documentation seemed attractive to many. However, one only has to remember the Pentagon Papers to see the implications here, or the candid negative assessments of malfunctioning defense systems - including Star Wars and the C-5A - passed to the press by insiders who loathed what they saw.

True, the law proposed felony prosecutions that would target those who leak only 'properly classified' documents - but any classification could be defended by a fellow bureaucrat, and it is the rare judge who will risk attacks on his patriotism by challenging it.

'If you knew what we know' is the way almost every sleazy defense of overclassification begins. Who knows how much of the truly ominous prosecution of Wen Ho Lee could have been concealed if those who disclosed the disculpatory documents had feared the prison terms that the proposed law would surely foreshadow?

Another defense of the legislation was that 'journalists would be protected' (that is, only the leaker could be jailed, not the leakee). In truth, that would merely open the door to the questioning of journalists - with contempt citations, trials and, yes, jail terms for those who refused to identify their sources.

The tradition of 'leaking' is an ancient and honorable one in government.

Those damaged by it - or who fear it- now thought they would be 'armed and dangerous' to any who attempt it. Now that President Clinton has smothered this baby in its cradle, his successor should see that it is not reborn.



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