WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only days after it approved them, a Senate panel is reconsidering strict new measures which it claimed would curb leaks of classified national security information to the media.
Senate Intelligence Committee members voted last week to attach the anti-leak measures to a bill authorizing U.S. intelligence activities, in a bid to stem what some lawmakers call a dangerous spill of information on such topics as clandestine drone attacks, informants planted in al Qaeda affiliates and alleged cyber-warfare against Iran.
But the panel’s proposals drew a chorus of criticism from prominent journalists and media outlets. Behind the scenes it also faced opposition from some in the executive branch, including spy agencies, and from other lawmakers, including members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
The Senate committee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, is now ready to consider alternative ideas.
A committee aide confirmed that it was “reviewing comments” about its current proposals and will consider changes to the language “as the bill moves forward.”
Officials said they were not yet ready to discuss what kind of changes they had in mind. The committee aide said modifications are likely before the overall intelligence bill is sent to the Senate for a floor vote.
One of the most contentious elements in the committee bill was a proposal to ban any intelligence officials besides press officers and agency directors or deputy directors from giving non-attributable “background” briefings to journalists.
The provision would halt a practice that has been followed during most, if not all, recent U.S. administrations under which journalists periodically have been briefed by frontline intelligence officials - usually analysts rather than undercover case officers - expert in specific subject areas or who have been directly involved in news events under discussion.
When George W. Bush was president, officials of the newly-created intelligence czar’s office arranged for journalists to meet regularly with National Intelligence Officers, the intelligence community’s top analysts in specific subject areas.
Under President Barack Obama, such briefings have been less extensive.
But the ban did not apply to anyone in Congress - elected legislators nor their staff - nor to executive branch officials, such as White House policy advisors, who were not directly employed by spy agencies.
Critics said that would have made it easier for politically-motivated presidential aides to twist or shape intelligence information to sell potentially controversial policies.
Bill Keller, columnist and former executive editor of the New York Times, said while the government “has a right and responsibility to protect secrets whose disclosure could undermine American security,” it also has “a responsibility to explain and justify what it is doing in our name.”
“The likely result of this kind of Draconian control is that the public — and most members of Congress — will know less about how well the intelligence agencies are doing their jobs,” Keller told Reuters.
Douglas Frantz, national security editor of the Washington Post, said: “Background briefings provide unclassified information that helps the press, and therefore the public, understand the facts and reasoning of the U.S. intelligence community.”
The kinds of leaks that might endanger national security “don’t occur in the structured background briefings,” Frantz said.
Also included in the Senate committee’s bill was a provision requiring Executive Branch agencies to notify Congress every time they make an authorized, intentional release of classified information.
Supporters suggested this could make it easier for lawmakers and congressional aides to openly discuss potentially sensitive information, since they would know what the administration considers classified and unclassified.
Under current laws and rules, the decision on what information is officially secret is made solely by the president and other Executive Branch officials under his authority.
Historically, the Executive Branch and Congress have accused each other of being the more prolific leakers.
Also in the bill approved by the Senate panel is a provision banning former top intelligence officials from becoming on-air TV consultants for a year after they leave the government, and a section authorizing intelligence chiefs to revoke pension benefits of any retired spy who reveals classified activities without first clearing their actions with their former agency.
According to a report published by the Senate committee, this latter provision was the only one to attract significant opposition from committee members.
Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and Vicki Allen