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Congress pits national security against press freedom

Clinton must now decide whether to veto a proposal to criminalize the disclosure of classified information.

In the nation's capital, leaks to the news media are as prevalent as marble monuments. They serve interests ranging from government oversight to partisan bickering.

But that could change in the near future under a congressional proposal that would criminalize the disclosure of classified information.

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The measure pits two bedrock principles of the American state against each other: the need for national security and the role of the press as a check on government. It passed the House and Senate and has been sent to President Clinton, who is now considering whether he will sign or veto it.

"Our position is to try to do everything we can to protect national security secrets," says an administration official, acknowledging the tough decision at hand. "But we're not sure this is the right way to go about it."

In essence, the measure drastically expands the kind of classified information that cannot be released. It also gives violators three years of jail time and could be used to force journalists to reveal unnamed sources.

The sponsors of the measure contend that media leaks have spun out of control in recent years, to the point where they compromise national security. CIA Director George Tenet has told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the administration "leaks like a sieve."

One recent episode has been cited as an example of where the law could be applied. A newspaper published text from a confidential 1995 agreement between Vice President Al Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The agreement dealt with a sensitive topic - the US position on Russian arms sales to Iran - which some observers say should not be published. But the memorandum also exposed what critics say may have been illegal activity by Mr. Gore - because he indicated that the US would permit the sales without sanctioning Iran.

Regardless, analysts say there are more leaks of sensitive intelligence information today than ever before. One reason is the end of the cold war, and the perception that US national security is no longer as vulnerable as it was during Soviet times.

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While officials and analysts readily acknowledge a lack of government secrecy, they are concerned that the current proposal was rushed through Congress without enough public debate and is too broad. As it is, the US government is well known for its liberal use of the "classified" label.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that the law could collide with the First Amendment. "This provision will severely erode the ability of the press to keep people informed about government misdeeds, embarrassments, and illegal activities," says Gregory Nojeim, an ACLU lawyer in Washington.

Mr. Clinton has until Saturday to decide if he will sign the bill.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society