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Spy yarn with a First Amendment snag

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If you are a devotee of spy novels -- say Helen MacInnes or John Le Carre -- consider the following: An American investigative reporter exposes bribes by a high-ranking US official to a business executive in a foreign nation. After the story is published, the reporter makes a chilling discovery: The bribery was undertaken to obtain vital intelligence information. What first seemed petty graft turned out to be something far different.

We cite this hypothetical case because of the controversial Intelligence Identities Protection Act now winding its way through the US Congress. The legislation could impose profound, and dangerous, restrictions on constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and a free press within the United States. In the above example the reporter writing the story could actually be guilty of a serious national security infraction, notwithstanding his unearthing of graft.

At issue is a difficult problem. How does a free society go about protecting the identity -- and safety -- of its covert intelligence agents while at the same time preserving freedom of speech and publication? A proper balance of interests is the key. The founding fathers, it must be noted, were explicit in their endorsement of maximum freedom of expression in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Congress shall make no law "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . ." By enacting legislation along the lines of the identities act, Congress could undermine the First Amendment guarantees that have so long differentiated the US from other nations.

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