Protecting US secrets -- and the First Amendment

World that the Carter administration has come up with a super-secret intelligence classification and dubbed it "Royal" makes us wonder what the likes of Sam Adams and Tom Jefferson would have thought. Behind this regal-sounding new category of hushhushability seems to be the idea that bureaucrats handling classified information have become so comfortable with the once-ominous "Top Secret" that they handle documents so stamped almost like ordinary memos.

Despite amusement at the singularly nonegalitarian ring of the new security term and concern over the persistent, we neither with to ridicule legitamate national security policy nor ignore other, more serious developments in the intelligence field: the halting steps toward writing a new charter for United States intelligence agencies and a related attempt rights, to protect covert operations.

Congress continues to struggle to produce the "intelligence charter" almost universally demanded in the wake of Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation excesses of the 1960s and early '70s. So far only stopgap measures have been enacted: the 1974 Hughes-Ryan amendments to the 1947 National Security Act and a soon-to-beenacted Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 . The new law has been passed by the Senate and will soon reach the House floor. Proponents of the act term it only a "foundation for a broader and much-needed intelligence charter. But they point out that it does clearly set forth the role of Congress in overseeing "all intelligence activities" of the CIA, the FBI, Defense, Intelligence Agency, and ational Security Agency -- not just the socalled "covert" projects.

But there is a second measure making its way through both House and Senate, and this one seems to be taking the "intelligence game" in the opposite direction from that intended when the revision process began. In an attempt to protect CIA and FBI covert activities and the individual agents involved in them , separate but similar House and Senate bills would provide criminal penalties against anyone who -- in the words of the Senate version -- "disposes, with the intent to impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States, to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, any information that identifies a covert agent . . ."

Three important congressional committees have approved this unprecedented legislation. It is said to be aimed specifically at the editor of a publication , the Covert Action Information Bulletin, which has over the past few years published the names of person it alleged to be covert CIA agents. Five years ago one of those named was murdered in Athens. A few weeks ago in Jamaica, the house of another so named was fired upon. Many Americans, not just the government officials responsible for intelligence activities, are very disturbed about these incidents and concerned about irresponsible or inimical publication of the names of supposed agents. But even the government officials most closely involved were at first opposed to the sanctions proposed.

After the Carter administration indicated it did not favor the legislation and a US Justice Department official told the Senate Intelligence Committee such a provisions would be unconstitutional, it was dropped from the originally bill. Now it has resurfaced with the backing of CIA Director Stansfield Turner and, apparently, the President. On Sept. 5, Frank Carlucci, deputy director of the CIA, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bill would not violate First Amendments rights and that "nothing could be more subversive of our constitutonal system of government than to permit a disgruntled minoroty of cityzens freely to thwart the will of the majority."

Who disapproves? Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York, for one; he originally favored such legislation but later decided it was "extraordinary careless of th rights of journalists." And seven up journalistic groups, including the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, have sent letters to House members opposing proposal.

The difficulty of reconciling intelligence activities with the ideals of a free society is clear. Enacting a law that might subvert the basic rights of free speech and press in order to stop the questionable activities of a few individuals certainly is unjustified. The government should first stop its own leaks, and the new legislation does provide stiff penalties for present of former government employees who breach security.

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