Some of journalism's hardest-hitting stories were written when reporters obtained classified information from secret government sources.
But such stories may never have come to light if a law had existed that made it a crime to leak classified information, media outlets pointed out last week. They are fighting a bill Congress sent to President Clinton that would make former or current federal employees criminally liable for any classified information they passed on to anyone.
In a letter, several top media executives last week said that "legislation that criminalizes all disclosures of classified information is anathema to a system that places sovereignty in the hands of the people." The letter, signed by CNN Chairman Tom Johnson,
Publisher Boisfeuillet Jones, Newspaper Association of America President John Sturm and
New York Times
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, was sent to President Clinton urging him to veto the measure. Clinton had until last Saturday to make a decision.
"Not only will the provision subject the news media to more subpoenas as prosecutors seek to identify 'leakers, but the law also will lead to the practice of classifying more information as 'secret' than is legitimately necessary," wrote Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. And "sometimes it's in the government's interests to make classified government information public."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who frequently takes media-friendly stances, also spoke against the bill: "This bill violates the core purpose of the First Amendment, and it is vital that the president protect the values that have allowed our nation to flourish by vetoing this bill." Schumer asked all his House and Senate colleagues to support a presidential veto.
The measure is included in legislation that authorizes the budgets for government spy outfits, such as the Central Intelligence Agency. It ended up on the president's desk after months of back-room negotiations and was championed by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"This bill sends a strong message to leakers, since it will, for the first time, ensure that leakers of all classified information may be held criminally accountable for their actions," Shelby said when the Senate passed the bill.
Shelby's House counterpart, Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), is less enthusiastic about the bill but still supportive.
Attorney General Janet Reno, an administration official, also supports the bill. She said last week that it closes a "very narrow gap" in existing law that makes it a criminal offense to leak classified defense information, according to the Associated Press.
On the other hand, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta appears to be interested in killing it, sources say. At press time, it was unclear whether Clinton would veto the bill. If he doesn't, media lobbyists have another shot at changing or delaying it when Congress comes back after the election for a lame-duck session starting Nov. 14.