Civil Liberties

New York Times Sounds Alarm on Proposed Anti-Leaks Legislation

Another attempt to make the national security state even less transparent and accountable is in the works


secrecy is the health of the state

The New York Times followed up its report yesterday on the FBI's ongoing leak investigation and the new anti-leaks measures that just passed the Senate Intelligence Committee with an editorial today explaining exactly what's wrong with those proposed measures:

Under the measure, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be permitted to "provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media." Briefings on sensitive topics by lower-level or career officials, who are not quoted by name, would be prohibited, shutting off routine news-gathering and exchanges that provide insight into government policies. None of these traditional press activities compromise the nation's safety. There is no exception carved out for whistle-blowers or other news media contacts that advance the public's awareness of government operations, including incidents of waste, fraud and abuse in the intelligence sphere.

The bill would even curtail the flow of unclassified information. It draws no distinction between information that is properly classified and the vast pile of information that poses no national risk but has been deemed secret thanks only to a dysfunctional system of overclassification of government documents.

It contains a constitutionally questionable provision that would prohibit a wide range of former government employees from providing paid commentary, including opinion articles, on "matters concerning the classified intelligence activities of any element of the intelligence community or intelligence related to national security." Yet the bill, which would enhance senior officials' ability to engage in politically motivated leaks, is not tailored to prevent disclosures truly harmful to national security. Those are already illegal under current law.

The Times places its hopes in the measures dying on the House Intelligence Committee and the White House, who haven't publicly supported the measures yet. Considering yesterday's Times report noted this administration is prosecuting more leakers than all previous administrations combined, the hope in Obama may be a little misplaced. The bill passed the Senate Intelligence Committee with just ONE dissenting vote (Ron Wyden), so I'm not sure where the hope that the House Intelligence Committee would be different comes from either.

Any effort to stop the legislation is most likely to come from the small coterie of civil libertarians who have expressed reservations to the expanding surveillance state, a mix of mostly freshmen Republicans and some Democrats who didn't suspend their support for civil liberties (if they had them in the first place) after their team took the White House.