ONE OF THE SWAMPIER areas of law and governance in this country has to do with the issue of disclosure -- that broad range of activities involved in the unauthorized giving and getting and spreading of government information, running from the commonplace leak to serious spying. There is a lack of clear policy on the subject; in a way that is itself a policy. It is one of those areas in which the guiding principles of government collide. On the one hand there is agreement that the government has a right, not to say duty, to protect its secrets, particularly in the field of national security. On the other is the knowledge that governments are often wrong, that they frequently classify information for less than defensible reasons, that officials themselves routinely leak classified information as a means of influencing public debate, and that the best test of policy is almost always public exposure. In every administration there is a reliance on the responsible officials -- on what in another context would be called prosecutorial discretion -- to find the middle ground between these poles. It is a difficult task. In the case of Samuel Loring Morison, convicted of espionage and theft of government property last week, our sense is that the government went too far.

That is not said by way of defending Mr. Morison. He held an important job -- Soviet ship analyst at the Naval Intelligence Support Center -- and a top security clearance, but he also moonlighted as American editor for the British publication Jane's Fighting Ships. For that he was paid between $5,000 and $7,000 a year. In the summer of 1984 he took classified documents from his Navy office, including three photographs marked "Secret." He cut off that designation and mailed the photos to Jane's Defence Weekly, which his British employer also put out. Jane's published them -- they were taken by a U.S. satellite of a Soviet nuclear carrier under construction -- and they were later reproduced by a number of American publications, including this one. Mr. Morison said he had acted because "the public should be made aware of what is going on on the other side," but the prosecutor said "he was trying to ingratiate himself . . . to get a full-time job" at Jane's.

Mr. Morison's superiors knew that he had the second job he did. Why they let him continue to hold it has not been explained. In any event, they chose to fire him for his disclosure. But to go beyond that stopping place to a criminal prosecution for espionage in a case like this is an overreaction. There is a mismatch between offense and response that tilts the policy balance too far one way.

The espionage statutes, which date back to 1917, are written broadly. Under the government's theory in this case, they could be used not just against spies but simple dissenters who chose to go public -- whistleblowers, for example. But for almost 70 years these laws have been applied more narrowly, primarily in cases where vital security information was passed surreptitiously to an enemy, knowing that it could harm the United States. It is, therefore, extremely troubling that the government now appears intent on trying to broaden their applicability. Only once previously, during the Nixon administration over the leaking of the Pentagon papers, did the government try -- unsuccessfully -- to use these statutes in quite this way. The risks created by this kind of overkill are greater than the risks reduced; too much government control over information is at least as bad as too little. The conviction should be overturned on appeal.