Concerns about the US government's ability to safeguard national security secrets have rarely been deeper. Lax protection of classified information at the country's nuclear weapons laboratories feed this concern. So do incidents like the State Department's recent loss of a laptop computer holding secret data.

Increased vigilance is in order. What's not in order, however, is a law that attaches prison sentences for any disclosure of information labeled "classified" by the government.

Yet that's what Congress has approved as part of next year's intelligence authorization bill.

Such a law goes too far. It would hurt the public's interest in the name of defending it. That's because not all classified material is created equal. There are, to be sure, official secrets that should remain just that. Current law already stiffly punishes disclosure of information judged to endanger the national security. And administrative penalties, such as firing, can follow release of less sensitive material.

Such leaks sometimes occur for political reasons. Often, however, they're an act of conscience by a government worker who feels something's being hidden under a "classified" tag. Bureaucracies, after all, have an interest in hiding mistakes.

Stripping the bill of this overreactive measure - which would amount to the first "official secrets" act in US history - would be an act of legislative intelligence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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