Maybe journalists shouldn’t be concerned that Sen. Kit Bond, R-MO, has introduced a bill to criminalize the disclosure of classified information. After all, the incumbent Leaker-in-Chief lamented the other day that “there’s no such thing as classification anymore, hardly,” even as he was leaking portions of one the nation’s most highly protected documents, the National Intelligence Estimate. Sen. Bond’s Official Secrets Act is a word-for-word replica of a measure that cleared the 106th Congress only to be vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton.
“Leaker –in-Chief” was the Los Angeles Times headline on a David Wise article that contends Washington’s secrecy game reached “new heights of abusurdity” when President Bush declassified portions of the NIE in an effort to rack up more political points than the whoever leaked other sections of that report suggesting the administration had been playing loose with the facts on the war in Iraq.
It’s hard to fault the President for wanting to level the playing field, but the scary thing about Sen. Bond’s bill is that it would radically tilt the playing field in favor of any incumbent administration, which already has an overwhelming home-field advantage. As Wise points out, presidents have been known to selectively declassify information to serve political ends. Murray Waas provided other examples of selective leaking in a National Journal article a few months back.
The proposed legislation would foster investigations certain to freeze the flow of information and be a handy tool for keeping the vast federal bureaucracy either on message or silent. And it would surely lead to the jailing of reporters who did manage to pick up “protected” information, then refused to disclose their sources.
That pretty much leaves any oversight to Congress, which doesn’t appear to want the job. The Boston Globe reported that most members of Congress go out of their way to not review classified information made available. Only a dozen or so of the 327 House members voting in favor of the Intelligence Authorization Bill read the classified portions of the document.
So I guess we should be concerned about Sen. Bond’s bill, after all. The government has been cranking out between 14 million and 15 million classification decisions a year – and if the experts are to be believed, that’s at least twice the amount of information that really needs to be protected for national security reasons. The senator’s bill would make anyone who discloses any piece of that vast cache a criminal, even if he/she didn’t know the information was classified. That sounds like a very deep chill on all but the most routine government information. And a pass to any president to spin with abandon.