The White House said on Tuesday it was closely examining legislation that could impose prison terms on officials who leak classified information, a measure that has drawn fire from news organizations.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the Clinton administration was reviewing the “anti-leak” legislation, a provision of a spending bill covering intelligence agencies.
A number of news organizations have complained about the bill, saying the language is too broad and that it violates the free speech provision in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We are taking a hard look at it. We have certainly heard from a number of news organizations around the country about their concerns about the bill and we will take those seriously,” Siewert told reporters.
“We are taking a close look at some of the concerns they raised,” said Siewert of the several dozen letters the White House chief of staff had received from news organizations.
President Bill Clinton has until Saturday to act on the legislation, which was initially requested by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA asked for the provision because it said it had lost agents and sophisticated surveillance methods due to newspaper articles based on leaks of classified information. The CIA declined to comment on the bill.
In a recent appearance before the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the biggest disappointment in his four years at the Pentagon was the constant leaks of top secret government information to Washington newspapers.
The secretary lamented that he even read personal memos to him in the newspaper before they reached his desk.
Cohen has warned in recent speeches that militant anti-Western guerrilla groups could begin striking targets in the United States and that Americans could be pressured to give up some cherished personal freedoms as the intelligence community probes for advance warning of such attacks.
The Senate intelligence committee inserted the anti leak provision into the Intelligence Authorization Act after closed hearings.
The measure calls for criminal penalties for anyone who “knowingly and willfully discloses or attempts to disclose” any classified information.