The measure, which drew strong opposition from some lawmakers and members of the news media, would have broadened secrecy laws to include non-defense related information. Violating the laws could have resulted in a fine and up to three years in prison.
Clinton said today the legislation might “chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.”
“We must never forget that the free flow of information is essential to a democratic society,” he said in a statement.
The provision was part of a bill authorizing spending for the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence activities.
Attorney General Janet Reno, one of the bill’s supporters, said Thursday the measure would cover only properly classified information, meaning information that, if released, could endanger national security.
Reno said the bill would only fill in holes left by current classified information laws and “would not result in a dramatically increased number of leak prosecutions.”
The issue touched off a conflict between government officials who supported the leaks legislation and members of the media who feared it would trample their first amendment rights.
Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chair of the House Intelligence committee and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the provision was “narrowly crafted to protect the rights that all Americans hold dear. It is not, as some would say, an affront to the First Amendment.”
But many in the media disagreed. In a letter sent Tuesday, executives from four of the nation’s largest news organizations — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and the Newspaper Association of America — asked Clinton to veto the bill, saying it could have hindered the news media’s efforts to deliver important information to the public.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, a law would criminalize all unauthorized disclosures of classified information — in effect creating an ‘official secrets act’ of the sort that exists elsewhere but that has always been rejected in this country,” the executives wrote.
Reno said the legislation would not have criminalized the receipt of classified, nondefense information by news reporters.
But Clinton said the provision could have created a barrier between government officials and the public.
“A desire to avoid the risk that their good faith choice of words — their exercise of judgment — could become the subject of a criminal referral for prosecution might discourage government officials from engaging even in appropriate public discussion, press briefings, or other legitimate official activities.” Clinton said.
Clinton told members of Congress “to pursue a more narrowly drawn provision tested in public hearings so that those they represent can also be heard on this important issue.”
This recent provision passed both houses Oct. 12 and was never a subject of public hearings.