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A bad anti-leak bill

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The federal government is home to an ever-growing mountain of classified information. A good deal of it is trivial, dated or mundane. Some of it is of vital national importance.

The government already has the power to prosecute officials who knowingly leak information that harms national security, just as it can punish people in trusted positions who leak secret codes or military information or, as was alleged in the Valerie Plame case, the names of people acting undercover.

So there is little justification for a bill Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has filed. It would punish any current or former government worker, or even civilian contractor, who leaks anything that is classified. The penalty would be either a fine or up to three years in prison, or both.

We have no quarrel with giving strong prison sentences to people who legitimately harm national security, but this bill doesn't address national security. Prosecutors could go after anyone who leaks anything from the growing mound of classified information without having to prove that the nation was harmed. It would put most government information, and its dissemination, in the hands of the executive branch. This nation's tradition always has been one of favoring free-flowing information, under the premise that it pays to be skeptical of those in power.

This bill was tried before, and it was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton. As usual, its proponents are throwing out dire warnings about leaks that are compromising the nation at a time of war, as well as a good measure of assurances that the bill won't punish reporters or news outlets who publish leaked information — only the official people who do the leaking.

That's scant reassurance at a time when prosecutors and judges are aggressively requiring reporters to turn over notes, tapes and other information in an effort to get at leakers. When the government erects fortified walls around the things it does and releases only that which makes it look good, the public ultimately suffers.

Interestingly, the list of co-sponsors of this bill includes Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, Utah's two senators. We're sorry to see that. The bill is little more than an emotional rant that goes way beyond what is needed to protect legitimate national secrets.