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Ashcroft: New laws against leaks may not be needed

By The Associated Press

10.24.02

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WASHINGTON — U.S. officials must do more to crack down on leaks of national secrets, but new laws may not be needed, Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a letter to Congress.

Existing laws are adequate — if they are properly enforced, Ashcroft said in a letter dated Oct. 22 to congressional leaders.

As part of a bill last year authorizing intelligence activities, Congress had asked Ashcroft to consult with other administration officials to see if new anti-leak laws should be considered.

The request came a year after President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have made it a felony to leak virtually anything the government deemed classified. Violators could have faced up to three years in prison.

Ashcroft noted that no single law now applies to leaks from throughout the government. Instead, various laws apply to different kinds of leaks. Those laws "provide a legal basis to prosecute those who engage in unauthorized disclosures, if they can be identified," he said.

While new laws might help government prosecute leak cases, it's not clear they would help identify people who leak information or discourage them from doing so, he said.

What's needed, Ashcroft said, is "a comprehensive, coordinated, governmentwide, aggressive, properly resourced and sustained effort" to stop leaks.

Among Ashcroft's recommendations:

  • Government departments should report crimes to the Justice Department, but should not elay their own internal investigations while Justice considers whether to prosecute.
  • The Justice Department will provide investigative support for internal investigations.
  • Agencies should notify the Justice Department when they have identified someone who leaked classified information.
  • The administration should stress to Congress, the media and the American public the damage caused by leaks.

Ashcroft's letter follows more than a year of dialogue between journalists and the Bush administration about how intelligence issues can be reported without damaging national security, said Scott Armstrong of Information Trust, an organization that promotes access to government information and higher journalistic standards.

Through the dialogue, agencies have developed a better understanding of journalists' needs to keep readers and viewers informed, he said. Journalists, meanwhile, have discussed withholding sensitive information that might not be critical for their reports, such as details about agency sources and methods.

"It's been a very responsible conversation," Armstrong said.

Related

Senators to give FBI records on contacts with news media
Freedom Forum's Paul McMasters fears investigation could go beyond leaks of classified information and uncover unrelated communications between lawmakers and journalists.  08.30.02

Rumsfeld urges crackdown on leaks to press
Defense secretary writes memo a week after The New York Times reports on classified document outlining aspects of 'concept' for U.S. war against Iraq.  07.17.02

Senator shelves classified-leaks bill — for now
Although Richard Shelby says he’s confident Bush wouldn’t veto measure, he won't push to reschedule hearing before next year.  09.06.01

Reporter: State Department demanded source of classified leak
National Review's Joel Mowbray says officials detained him briefly, wanted to know how he obtained secret papers on U.S. visa program in Saudi Arabia.  07.16.02

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