Who keeps tabs on the spies?

Throughout United States history there has always been an uneasy tension between those persons who have sought to protect national security and state secrets and civil libertarians who favored maximum freedom of speech and the absolute accountability of public officials. Sometimes the tension has equalized itself out. All too often, however, there have been periods of excess when the hand of authority was used to stifle dissent, as in the case of the Wilson administration during World War I when it vigorously sought to jail "subversives" and Congress enacted the Espionage and Sedition acts.

While the present period obviously represents nothing like the drama of those years, there is a certain mood in the land which, unless carefully controlled, could invite a return to the kind of secrecy and lack of accountability that often marked government before the Watergate-era reforms of the mid-1970s. Efforts are currently underway to so shroud US intelligence agencies in a privileged shield of secrecy as to make such agencies virtually unanswerablem to the inquiries of a free press or a critical public. Two recent manifestations of this trend are noteworthy:

1. The House last week enacted a measure that would make it a crime for private citizens to disclose the identity of a US intelligence agent, even if the information came from public sources. Lawmakers have sought such a measure for the past five years after a CIA station chief in Athens was assassinated following publication of his name.

2. CIA chief William Casey is urging Congress to exempt national intelligence agencies from the Freedom of Information Act, which allows private citizens (including journalists) the right to petition government agencies for nonclassified information.

Admittedly there is something to be said on behalf of both moves. Identifying names of secret agents is reprehensible. The press, for its part, must excercise the highest degree of responsibility and professionalism in national security matters.

What is worrisome, however, is that the way the House bill has been drafted could prevent the disclosure of abuses by intelligence agencies. The measure says that a person, including a journalist, would be criminally liable if he or she had "reason to believe" that disclosure of the agent's identity would harm national security interests. This was a change from a more restrictive House Intelligence Committee version that said criminal liability would result if the person doing the disclosing had specific "intent to impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States."

The Senate should reject the House phrasing and adopt the stricter-intent requirement. The fact is that in recent years there have been disclosures of a number of cases where federal officials and intelligence officials have misused their authority and violated the law. Would the public be better served for not having had the abuses come to light, or even letting the persons involved continue in their wrongdoing? The House bill invites coverups based on "national security" allegations.

As for totally excluding the CIA and other intelligence agencies from the Freedom of Information Act, such a step would be injurious to the public. The Freedom of Information Act already excludes the release of a broad range of classified information. To exempt a spy agency entirely from any measure of accountability is to make that agency in a sense the master of the public.

For lawmakers and the Reagan administration, the delicately balanced goal must be to protect US agents and spy agencies -- as well as the public and nation they are called upon to serve.

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