The House steamrolled its own Intelligence Committee yesterday and voted to make even negligent disclosures of the identities of U.S. intelligence operatives a federal crime.
The crucial vote, aimed at facilitating prosecutions, came on a floor amendment offered by Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio) to dispense with a requirement that the government prove "intent to impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States . . . " to win convictions in such cases.
Instead, the House voted, 226 to 181, to outlaw the unauthorized identification of covert agents by anyone "with reason to believe" such activities would impair or impede U.S. intelligence operations.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) and other ranking committee members warned in vain that Ashbrook's amendment might make the measure unconstitutional.
Ashbrook replied by urging the House to discard the advice of the legal scholars and experts who testified before the committee and use its own judgment as to what the courts would uphold.
"We should not back down simply because some law scholar from Chicago says it is unconstitutional," Ashbrook said of his proposal. "We should reassert ourselves."
The vote on final passage was an overwhelming 354 to 56. The holdouts, all Democrats, included Boland, who could not bring himself to vote for the measure although he has been seeking a law along such lines for several years.
"It's not my bill," Boland said after the changes had been made. "This bill gives me great troubles in its present form."
Other opponents protested that it could also prevent the exposure of illegal intelligence activities.
"Certainly we should in no way impair the ability of the news media to reveal the names of agents when they engage in unlawful activities," said Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio). "Yet this bill would make it a crime to do so."
Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) charged that the section applicable to journalists and others outside government channels "presents an incursion on the First Amendment unparalleled in the history of the nation during peacetime.
"Never has the publication of information in the public domain by private citizens been made an offense," Weiss declared.
The bill would make it a felony to disclose the names of agents even if the information is derived from unclassified sources such as old editions of the State Department's Biographic Register, which often contain telltale clues. Weiss had offered an amendment to exempt the transmittal of "information previously available from public sources" but he was batted down on a standing division, 38 to 3.
The main targets of the bill are renegades such as former CIA officer Philip Agee and publications such as the Covert Action Information Bulletin and Counterspy, which regularly print the names of CIA officers stationed overseas with the avowed aim of hindering their operations.
"What we're after today are the Philip Agees of the world," Rep. C. W. (Bill) Young (R-Fla.) said in discounting fears that even cocktail party chatter might be proscribed. "What we're doing today is announcing for all the world to see that we are going to protect the security of our nation....We intend to protect those who are protecting us."
In the only other amendment that was adopted, again over the oppositon of the Intelligence Committee leadership, the House voted to protect the names of undercover agents and officers after they have retired or gone into other lines of work.
The White House and the Justice Department had both indicated a preference for the Ashbrook amendment, which is also embodied in a Senate version awaiting markup by the Judiciary Committee.
The measure carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine for past or present government officials privy to classified information and up to three years in prison and a $15,000 fine for journalists and other outsiders.
The Virginia delegation voted for the Ashbrook amendment with the exception of GOP Reps. J. Kenneth Robinson and G. William Whitehurst. In the Maryland delegation, Reps. Marjorie Holt (R), Beverly Byron (D) and Roy Dyson (D) voted with Ashbrook while four of the other five other Democrats voted no. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) did not vote.