While the Pentagon eargerly awaits the extra billions that President Reagan has promised, officials don't want their spending spree spoiled by newspaper exposes of military waste, profiteering and fraud. Therefore, they would like to invest government secrecy with the halo of national survival.
This is a project that will require some tinkering with the laws that uphold freedom of the press. For such a delicate operation, my associates Indy Badhwar and Jack Mitchell have learned, the brass hats have turned to Rep. Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.), who, in behalf of the Pentagon, has called for a radical new security program.
Under his proposal, "no declassification of the nation's most vital military secrets can be made by any single official -- enven the Secretary of Defense." The object of this requirement is to restrict the civilians who are supposed to rule the Pentagon and give greater control over the news flow to the military professionals.
The idea of declassifying information by committee, as these masters of the bureaucratic arts know, would also reduce the amount of news that escapes from the Pentagon. Once a paper is classified, it is almost impossible to prod a committee into removing the secrecy stamp.
But the brass is also aware that when the government keeps a tight nozzle on the news, the official pipelines spring multiple leads. Stratton would plug these leaks with punitive measures.
Citing the British Official Secreats Act -- and this two centuries after the American colonies took up arms against the tyranny of just such measures -- Stratton proposes that the government "prevent, by the establishment of appropriate penalties, the publication of such secrets, or . . . require that any publication of such information by the media be accompanied by the name of the source of such information."
This pernicious proposal would instantly make every editor in the country eligible for a stretch in the slammer. Not only would editors be unable to expose military misspending unless the government itself chose to enlighten the populace, but they also could print no more than the government wished them to report about the military budget, which consumes so much of the taxpayers' money.
Stratton is an anachronism -- a naval officer out of the Bull Halsey mold, meant for the bridge of a battleship with the wind in his face but bound to a congressional desk; a hero in unheroic times, unhappily hemmed in by the humdrum of peace and the flummery of politics.
When the generals and admirals speak, Stratton amplifies their statements with his own oratorial artillery. Thus last summer, when the Carter administration leaked some stale "secrets" about the so-called Stealth aircraft, Stratton reacted with all the anguish of a brass hat who had pinched his finger in a stapling machine. His roars of outrage echoed the protests from the Pentagon that the leaks had given aid and comfort to the Soviets.
The timing of the leaks -- at a point when Jimmy Carter wanted to quench the last feeble sparks of revolt in his own party and defuse Republican charges that he had let our military strength deteriorate -- made it unmistakably clear that they were politically inspired. What soon became just as clear, as the FBI discovered, was that Carter's leakers had covered their tracks well.
Unable to identify the administration officials who leaked the story, unable even to determine whether the leaks were "authorized" or not, Stratton chose to blame the whole rubarb on -- who else? -- the press.
This contradicted his own earlier conclusion that the leaks were politically motivated. "The release of information about Stealth . . . was done to make the Defense Department and the administration look good in an election year," he reported after a congressional investigation.
But after second thoughts, Stratton chose to use the Stealth leaks as justification for an assult on the press. He is proposing, in effect, that the First Amendment be repealed.