By a single vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed yesterday to narrow the scope of a House-passed bill making it a crime to identify American intelligence operatives working undercover overseas.
Under the version reported out by the full committee, journalists and others who publish the names of covert agents would be subject to prosecution only if they acted with specific "intent to impair or impede" U.S. intelligence activities through their disclosures.
Press and civil liberty groups had lobbied heavily against the version passed last month by the House that would make identifying any covert agent a crime, even in an article exposing illegal activities by the agent.
The original version of the bill, passed by the House Sept. 23 and approved by the Senate security and terrorism subcommittee, was so broad that opponents feared it could have led to prosecutions of reporters involved in such news reports as the Central Intelligence Agency connections of some of the Watergate burglars.
Even the narrower version, approved by a 9-to-8 vote with Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) abstaining, would make it a crime in some cases to release unclassified information obtained from publicly available sources.
The proposed legislation is part of an ongoing administration effort to protect CIA secrets from the public scrutiny and exposure that is said to have decreased the effectiveness of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
It has gained momentum from the public outrage against Louis Wolf, editor of the Covert Action Information Bulletin, and former CIA agent Philip Agee, who have both published lists of covert CIA agents.
Yesterday's amendment was pushed through by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who said not only that the original bill would discourage legitimate investigative reporting but also that at least 100 constitutional experts have examined the bill and "found it wanting in its constitutionality."
Under his version, he said, the legal test would be: "Did you intend to hurt the United States of America? If you did . . . you should go to jail. If you didn't, you shouldn't go to jail."
Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), chairman of the security and terrorism subcommittee, insisted that the broader version of the bill is not unconstitutional.
"How can you believe it's unconstitutional when the CIA is for it, the attorney general is for it . . . two Justice Departments in a row are for it?" he asked. "It's like debating the commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.ional when the CIA is for it, the attorney general is for it . . . two Justice Departments in a row are for it?" he asked. "It's like debating the commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. There are going to be some sophisticated interpretations put on anything."
Richard K. Willard, counsel for intelligence policy at the Justice Department, said the wider bill was "preferable," but he added that the Biden amendment is "enforceable and constitutional."