FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Evansville Courier & Press
June 16, 2000

Editorial: Leaks

Wielded in the name of “security,” information is most often classified secret because it would be inconvenient, awkward or embarrassing for it to become public.

We know this to be true because when government files are declassified, it has been shown to be true. Even the most innocent paperwork gets classified.

Still, a powerful Washington lobby would like to see the secrecy laws expanded, and this lobby has caught the ear of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose chairman, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., proposes to fine up to $10,000 and jail up to three years any government official who “knowingly and willingly” discloses classified information.

If this were the law now and if it were enforced against officials who leak, much of the senior White House staff, top Pentagon brass, the Cabinet and even the U.S. Senate might be sewing mailbags for Uncle Sam. That the Intelligence Committee discussed this bill behind closed doors Wednesday is an indication of its dubious merits.

Advocates argue that the bill would affect only “national security,” but that term is as abused as it is elastic. If this bill were law now, the Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory would have immediately classified the disappearance from its vaults of two computer hard drives containing critical nuclear-weapons secrets. The explanation would be “national security,” but the reason would have been to spare the lab its richly earned embarrassment.

Proponents argue that the bill skirts First Amendment problems because it makes leaking, but not publishing, classified information a crime. But prosecution would inevitably entail issuing subpoenas to reporters and news agencies, and then there would indeed be a First Amendment problem.

"Leaks" is only a pejorative for open government and the free flow of information.

FAS | Government Secrecy | June 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS