Senate committee approves provision to plug intelligence leaks


From left, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., finish a news conference in Washington on June 26, 2012 to assess their belief that President Obama's administration has orchestrated disclosure of classified information for political gain. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
July 25, 2012

Lawmakers who oversee the nation’s spy agencies moved this week to curb leaks of classified information by approving legislation that would further restrict intelligence officials’ ability to talk to news organizations or work for them after leaving their government jobs.

The provisions, which the Senate intelligence committee passed on Tuesday, represent the broadest anti-leak measures proposed in response to stories this year that exposed details of top-secret programs and terrorism threats.

The legislation, which has yet to be considered by the full Senate or House, would require the White House to notify Congress whenever it plans to share classified information with the public and would curb an increasingly common arrangement in which top national security officials take jobs as commentators on cable-television shows.

The language appeared to be drafted in response to the recent disclosure that the Obama administration had arranged a briefing for television analysts on a disrupted terrorism plot in Yemen before most lawmakers were told of the threat.

“The culture of leaks has to change,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the intelligence panel, said in a statement.

The committee's proposal comes as concern about leaks has emerged as a contentious issue in the presidential campaign. Feinstein was forced to backtrack Monday from public comments in which she said that the White House “has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”

Her remark became fodder for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, prompting Feinstein to issue a follow-up statement saying she shouldn’t have speculated on recent leaks “because the fact of the matter is I don’t know the source.”

The provisions were included in a broader intelligence authorization bill that serves as a budget blueprint for the nation’s spy agencies. This year’s version would impose unspecified cuts to an overall budget that reached $55 billion for fiscal 2011, although details remain classified. The committee approved the measure on a vote of 14 to 1 and did not disclose who cast the opposing vote.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee, said that the bill is aimed at stanching a “torrent of leaks” and that key portions were negotiated with House members.

The notification provision would apply only in cases in which “the purpose of a disclosure is to make the information public,” either directly or through news organizations, according to an official familiar with the legislation. The language is not intended to affect the government’s ability to share information with foreign governments.

The White House is likely to scrutinize that provision. The Obama administration has been more aggressive than any of its predecessors in investigating and prosecuting leak cases, but it may chafe at the idea of having to check with Congress on its communications with the public or the media. A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. reviewed earlier drafts of the bill and raised concerns. In a statement, he said he had told members that “for any legislation focused on stopping leaks to be effective, it must be uniform and universal.”

But other provisions track closely with changes that Clapper has endorsed, including requiring internal investigations when the Justice Department decides against criminal probes.

The ban on television contracts could block — at least temporarily — an often lucrative post-government path for security officials. The White House recently held a conference call to discuss the disrupted Yemeni plot with former officials of the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations who are now working on television, including Frances Fragos Townsend, Roger Cressey and Juan Zarate.

Administration officials said no classified information was shared in the call.

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