The House gave final approval yesterday to a bill making it a crime to disclose the names of U.S. intelligence agents but wrapped it up with a controversial conference report intended to make it apply only in limited circumstances.
Opponents of the measure such as Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) protested that it was still unconstitutional.
Advocates of a crackdown on unauthorized revelations such as Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) complained at the same time that the conference report made too many concessions and said they hoped the courts would ignore it.
The vote on final passage was 315 to 32. All of the nays came from Democrats.
The bill, under any interpretation, would for the first time in Americn history make it a crime to publish information even when obtained from public records.
Passage is expected in the Senate next week.
The chief architect of the conference report, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), said it was drafted to make clear the Congress wants "to criminalize the wholesale exposure of intelligence operatives while treading as lightly as possible upon the First Amendment."
But Hyde and others were quick to point out that the bill itself can read quite differently. Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said he feared the conference report, which both he and Hyde refused to sign, was "an effort to water down of dilute the effectiveness of the legislation..."
Under the bill, past or present government employes who have had access to classified information would receive the stiffest penalties for conviction of unauthorized disclosures: 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
But the crucial section, the one that has held up passage for more than two years now, would cover anyone outside the government who act "in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents and with reason to believe that such activities would impair or impede the intelligence activities of the United States."
Those indicaed and convicted under this clause would face three years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
The clamor for the bill grew out of the practives of CIA renegade Philip Agee and publications such as the Covert Action Information Bulletin which regularly published the names of CIA officers stationed overseas with the avowed aim of destroying their effectiveness.
But there have been widespread complaints from news organizations and other groups, especially in light of the broad-gauged "reason to believe" clause, that the measure would also criminalize new stories aimed at disclosing illegal or improper intelligence operations and would stifle the publication of many legitimate articles.
The conference report, which was hammered out last month after a meeting between Boland and the bill's key Senate sponsor, John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), represented an attempt to lay those fears to rest. Boland repeatedly described it in floor debate as "the authoritative statment" as to the meaning of the statute and he made plain that he regarded it as essential to the bill's constitutionality. The report reaffirmed the rule that "the actual information disclosed does not have to be classified" for journalists or anyone else to run afoul of the law. The identities of CIA officers assigned to American embassies overseas frequently can be gleaned from public records such as old editions of the State Department's Biographic Register.
But the conferees emphasized that criminal penalties for outsiders were to be applied "only in very limited circumstances to deter those who make it their business to ferret out and publish the identities of agents."
The law, they continued, "does not affect the First Amendment rights of those who disclose the indentities of agents as an integral part of another enterprise such as news media reporting of intelligence failures or abuses, academic studies of U.S. government of its internal rules."
In addition, the report said, the proscribed "pattern of activities" must involve "a substantial effort to ferret out names which the government is seeking to keep secret" and amount to an "intelligence indentities."
Thus, the report said, a newspaper investigation of the possible CIA connections of the Watergate burglars or a scholarly inquiry into the Phoenix program in Vietnam would not be covered because they would not amount to intentional efforts "to identify and expose covert agents."
Hyde and several other Republicans took some comfort in the fact that the conference report also said a defendant's claim of a good intent "additional to the intent to indentify and expose" will not absolve him from guilt. But they made no secret of their overall disappointment.
"I urge the courts to consign the statement of the managers to the oblivion it deserves," Hyde said of the report.
Boland replied that where "the bill lacks clarity as it does," such a statement was clearly in order. He said he hoped the courts would appreciate it "since it is the official explanation provided to, and adopted by each house."
Edwards and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) also refused to sign the report, but for different reasons. "No amount of tinkering, either with the statutory language itself or with the report, can render this bill constitutional," Edwards protested, "as long as it seeks to criminalize publication of unclassified information or information already in the public domain.
The bill adopted yesterday covers active intelligence officers, agents, informats and "sources of operational assistance" and abandons a provision approved by the House last fall to cover former operatives as well.