The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has begun a series of hearings on unauthorized disclosures of classified information that may lead to legislation providing more effective ways to prosecute leakers, according to the panel's chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

Hoekstra said in an interview that he does not have any specific legislation in mind but that he wants to find ways "to protect the public's right to know and at the same time protect the intelligence community that needs to be more secure." He has told colleagues that tightening statutes barring release of classified information could accompany so-called shield-law bills now before Congress that are aimed at protecting journalists from being forced to disclose sources.

Such shield laws "could have serious implications if passed without exceptions for those occasions when our national security is at risk," Hoekstra said in a speech in July. "The time has come for a comprehensive law that will make it easier for the government to prosecute wrongdoers and increase the penalties which hopefully will act as a deterrent for people thinking about disclosing information."

The action in the committee comes as special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald continues a federal investigation into the public disclosure of the status of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, a probe that has kept New York Times reporter Judith Miller in jail since July for refusing to disclose sources, although she did not write about Plame.

Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said she agreed with Hoekstra that the time had come to make it easier to find and prosecute leakers of classified information, "but only consistent with the First Amendment." She also said the panel's hearings will look into whether the government is overzealous in classifying information, leading government employees to disregard secrecy rules.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.), the second-ranking Democrat, said the committee has been told "many times of clear examples where danger and death have occurred when leaked information came into the public realm . . . including deaths in recent times." He said he could not describe the incidents, but that what is needed is "an active discussion between the media, the legislative and executive branch" to find a solution.

The House committee's first leak hearing took place behind closed doors on Sept. 14 with testimony from an unnamed "representative of the intelligence community," who discussed "repercussions and consequences" of unauthorized disclosures, a committee statement said. Hoekstra said the panel moved from hearing about the damaging impact of leaks to "why we are not prosecuting and why we are not finding the leakers."

The next session will have Justice Department witnesses discussing "what is working and not working," Hoekstra said. That will be followed by a meeting with representatives of the media on "access to information."

The classification process will also be covered, because "too much information is classified and more should be declassified," he said. Asked why he, along with other members, refused to identify the panel's first witness, Hoekstra said, "We probably have some overclassification situations of our own."

He said others have tried to put together legislation on leaks and failed. "It may be very difficult," Hoekstra said, adding, "If Hoekstra and Harman can agree, it might get done. At least we will give it an honest shot."

Federal law makes it a crime to disclose certain types of classified information such as nuclear secrets, data about intercepted information or codes, or the identities of covert case officers or agents working for the United States. The espionage statutes bar providing classified information to foreigners with intent to harm the United States. There are also broader criminal statutes such as theft of government property that have been used in leak cases. But as Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told Congress in 2002, "There is no single statute that provides criminal penalties for all types of unauthorized disclosures of classified information."

Ironically, the day after last week's session on the danger of leaks, Hoekstra and Republican members of the intelligence committee voted down a resolution by Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), calling on President Bush to turn over to the House documents relating to the Plame probe. Plame is the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to check out intelligence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium. After Wilson wrote a newspaper op-ed column in 2003 disputing the intelligence, senior Bush administration officials, apparently trying to discredit his findings, told reporters that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee who had a role in sending him on the trip. Days later, Plame was named as an "agency operative" in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak. Fitzgerald has been investigating the disclosure of Plame's CIA status since December 2003.

Hoekstra cited a letter he received from Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella that said Fitzgerald had advised that production of documents on the Plame case "would interfere with his investigation."

Democrats, in calling for approval of Holt's resolution, noted that the committee was conducting hearings on leaks and that "disclosing the identity of our intelligence operatives is a serious breach of national security." They also pointed out that Republicans, during the Clinton administration, carried out several congressional investigations of alleged espionage at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories at the same time that a criminal investigation was underway.