WASHINGTON: Senator Richard Shelby's (R-AL) long crusade to create a federal law punishing government employees who disclose classified information to the media received a potentially fatal blow last week.
Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a report to Congress on Tuesday saying the key to plugging such leaks was aggressive investigation and the enforcement of existing laws, not the creation of new ones. "Accordingly, I am not recommending that the executive branch focus its attention on pursuing new legislation at this time," he wrote.
The report was the culmination of an interagency study to determine how leaks of classified information impact the government, and what the best methods are for combating them. The study was undertaken early this year as a compromise between Shelby and the White House.
In 2000, Congress approved Shelby's first attempt to make the disclosing of classified information a federal crime, but then-President Clinton vetoed the measure in the face of intense pressure from the media and civil liberties groups. Shelby tried again in 2001, but after learning that he did not have White House support, he was persuaded instead to settle for a comprehensive study of the subject spanning the Justice, Energy, State, and Defense Departments.
Journalists and free-speech advocates have long opposed a federal law against the disclosing of classified information on the grounds that it could have a chilling effect on those trying to expose government wrongdoing.
While the study is likely to silence the call for new legislation, it also seems to signal a new vigor on behalf of the administration to track down and punish government employees who talk out of turn. In his letter, Ashcroft firmly endorsed "rigorous investigation" and "vigorous enforcement" to plug leaks.
"Detecting and punishing unauthorized disclosures of US national security secrets (is) among our highest priorities at all times, but especially in this time of war against terrorism of global reach," he wrote.
Among the new proposals for tightening security is requiring government employees to sign non-disclosure forms whenever handling sensitive documents.
Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a longtime opponent of the Shelby measure, expressed mixed feelings regarding the study's findings.
"We are relieved to see that the administration does not endorse legislation that would automatically incriminate anyone who leaked classified information," she said. "But I don't think we can interpret that memorandum as a rollover on classified information.
"Anytime that you threaten leakers, you are threatening the ability of the public to get information," Daugherty continued. "On the other hand, (reporters) certainly prefer to get information through the Freedom of Information Act, and through regular, on-the-record interviews."
She maintained, however, that government whistle-blowers play an important role in American journalism, saying, "There are certainly those who leak information that the public really needs to have."