Papers Pushed Veto of Leak Bill

By Shields, Todd | Editor & Publisher, November 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Papers Pushed Veto of Leak Bill


Shields, Todd, Editor & Publisher


'Post' and 'Times' joined the battle to protect freedom of speech

The newspaper industry mounted an unusually intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort -- including rare personal appeals to the White House by major publishers -- as it fought legislation to criminalize all leaks of federal secrets.

President Clinton vetoed the measure Nov. 4, saying it threatened the balance between security requirements and a democracy's need for the free flow of information. Relieved civil-liberties advocates credited newspapers with playing an important role in reversing legislation that had seemed inevitable.

"We and other civil-liberties activists flagged this," said Gregory T. Nojeim, legislative counsel in Washington for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It didn't get traction until the editorial boards understood it and spoke against it."

The measure drew little debate as it passed Congress without public hearings. It would have made all leaks of secrets a felony, compared with current law that restricts criminal penalties to narrow categories and tests for harm to national security. Critics warned the measure, spawned in closed meetings of the Senate's Intelligence Committee, would chill potential leakers and bring search warrants, telephone taps, and subpoenas upon reporters as prosecutors tried to find their sources.

"This was not a trivial battle," said Steven Aftergood, who monitors secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists. "This threatened to alter the terms of the relationship between the government, the press, and the people." Aftergood said he considered it "unthinkable a veto could still be a possibility" after the administration in an October statement signaled Clinton would approve the bill.

In the weeks after final congressional passage on Oct. 12, more newspapers began editorializing against the bill. The administration itself split. Some officials said the measure was needed to stem harmful leaks, but others said it could stifle spokesmen, ambassadors, and others who need to explain government policy. Aftergood said it appeared Clinton was moved by a combination of the concern within the executive branch and the media outcry. …

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