Shadow Government

USA TODAY   09/05/2001

Government secrets

   Should the same government that conducted outrageous radiation and biological-warfare experiments on unwitting citizens have the power to hide such abuses?

Should the appalling safety violations committed in the government's manufacture of nuclear weapons and power plants be forever hushed up?

   Strange as it sounds, powerful members of Congress are again pushing legislation that would give the executive branch a new tool to hide its mistakes permanently.

   Their steamroller stalled this week when the Bush administration asked for more time to study the issue. That delay will best serve the public if it kills off the idea of enacting this "official secrets act," which would turn whistle-blowing into a felony.

   Even in the darkest days of World War II or the most tense moments of the Cold War there was no serious consideration of such a law. But zealots on the Senate and House Intelligence committees keep insisting the country is in dire peril because of a torrent of leaks of classified information.

   Like what, for instance? Their usual answer is that they can't say: It's a secret.

   Nor can they defend the need for this law when it's already a felony to harm national security by leaking classified defense-related material.

   But the proposed change would go further: threatening government employees with up to 3 years in prison for willfully disclosing nearly any classified information, potentially expanding the definition of classifiable material and removing the need to prove national security was harmed by a leak.

   Bureaucrats already classify an estimated 8 million documents a year. And information often stays classified long after any reasonable justification has passed, including still-secret biographies of long-dead communist biggies or an old recipe for disappearing ink.

   The most likely effect of such a law would be to encourage even wider use of secret classifications by nervous bureaucrats while silencing anyone wanting to expose wrongdoing that's being hidden from the public.

   As one of the few members of Congress who has spoken against it, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said, "It would silence whistleblowers in a way that has never before come before this body." Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, called it giving the executive branch "a blank check to criminalize any leaking they do not like."

   Now that the administration has rightly put the brakes on this ill-conceived legislation, it's time to stop it altogether.

© Copyright 2001 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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