Sorry Senators, No One Likes Your Anti-Leaking Bill

Just because a bill receives bipartisan support, doesn't mean it's any good. 

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Just because a bill receives bipartisan support, doesn't mean it's any good. The Senate's new legislation cracking down on national security leaks, including barring intelligence officials from giving off-the-record interviews about unclassified national security issues, is being greeted by critics as a hot mess. Judging by its passage through the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, you might think the the Intelligence Authorization Act was a no-brainer: It passed by a 14-1 vote. But ask anyone outside of its chief promoters (including Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe) and the shortcomings of the bill stick out loud and clear. Here are a few examples:

It's a transparency killer. One provision in the bill bans the age-hold practice of intelligence analysts offering background information about unclassified information to reporters. Under the law, only the director or deputy director of an agency or members of its PR staff would be able to provide this information. That's problematic because it prevents analysts with expert knowledge of giving interviews to journalists—a point National Intelligence Director James Clapper made when opposing the bill. But it's not just unpopular with those inside government. "It's terrible for transparency," Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. "It makes sure that information is tightly controlled through approved channels so that the public hears only what agency leadership wants the public to hear about the governments intelligence activities, including on unclassified matters." Goitein thinks the bill will ultimately pass in its current form.

It has no effect on who traditionally leaks. Incredibly, the bill doesn't even go after the sections of government most prone to leaking: The White House and Congress. It's only applicable to the intelligence community, which you can imagine, feels a little sore about being singled out. "This is totally ineffective medicine,” former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told Politico's Josh Gerstein. “There’s nothing to indicate that any of the egregious leaks people have been spun up about the last few months came out of the intelligence community or came out of the midlevel of any of these organizations, so how are these particular fixes going to fix anything? If these rules also applied to the White House, the State Department and Congress, they might work. … I’m quite confident there’s nothing in the language that will prevent members of Congress from doing or saying anything."

It creates obstacles for the White House disclosing information. The White House keeps enough things secret from the American public. Now Congress wants to make it even more difficult to disclose information, The Washington Post's David Ignatius notes. "The bill creates a cumbersome system whereby the executive branch must tell Congress each time it intends to make an 'authorized' disclosure of previously classified information. A practical example was the administration’s decision to declassify and disclose some of Osama bin Laden’s communications this year. The question is: Why is this sort of disclosure a concern of Congress, requiring concurrent notification? Surely it falls squarely under the president’s Article II powers."

It limits the media's resources As we noted last week, the bill bans national security officials with top security clearances from getting gigs as media commentators within a year of their departure from government. While it's true, some of these commentators are propaganda hacks, it should be for the cable networks to decide how awful their programming will be, not Congress.

It pointlessly frightens government employees. Ignatius also points out the more useless aspects of the bill. "The bill would strip away pension benefits from anyone who makes unauthorized disclosures," he writes. "This provision seems pointless because the CIA and other agencies already have strict contractual systems enforcing nondisclosure by their employees. Probably, as with much else in the bill, the aim is simply to frighten government employees."

Overall, it's difficult to find anyone outside of government who thinks this bill makes good sense. As a result, it just smacks of desperation on Congress's part, as Jane Kirtley, a law professor and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Politico. “We know what it’s all about: They’re mad about White House leaks and they can’t quite get to it. … This bill is really stupid or naive,” she said. “Maybe the purpose of all this is to put fear of God in people who are potential sources for the media."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.