WASHINGTON — The presidential commission investigating intelligence failures complained yesterday that the Justice Department doesn't adequately prosecute leaks of classified information to journalists. It warned that press disclosures have aided America's adversaries and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The commission, parts of whose 618-page report also were leaked to news organizations over recent days, concluded that leaks of sensitive information by U.S. officials can be reduced but never stopped entirely.
The panel said U.S. prosecutors have not criminally charged anyone despite reports by spy agencies of hundreds of damaging leaks during the past decade. It cited government sensitivity over dealing aggressively with leaks from administration officials and Congress.
But the panel also appealed for an end to the "long-standing defeatism that has paralyzed action on this topic."
"Those responsible for the most damaging leaks can be held accountable if they can be identified and if the government is willing to prosecute them," the commission said.
Press experts warned against suggestions that journalists could be fined or imprisoned for publishing even classified information.
"Excessive secrecy is far more harmful — and far more costly — than the leaks of classified information deplored in the report," said David Tomlin, general counsel for the Associated Press. "We hope any response to the commission's findings stays focused where it belongs — on the reliability of that information."
Secrecy laws prohibit U.S. employees from making classified disclosures but do not extend to reporters repeating the same information, except in rare cases involving the identities of agents or details about wiretaps or spy satellites.
"I would caution against some notion that journalists should be punished for printing information they receive," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "That's ridiculous, not to mention unconstitutional."
The commission said it considered, but could not agree, whether Congress should approve a federal shield law to safeguard reporters from being compelled to identify their sources. The panel expressed support for First Amendment protections but said leading intelligence experts advised that "the best, if not only, way to identify leakers was through the reporters to whom classified information was leaked."
Congress is considering proposals already introduced in the House and Senate for a new shield law.
The commission also endorsed the modern equivalent of a "Loose Lips Sink Ships" public campaign to educate U.S. employees about their obligations to keep information secret and warn them about penalties if they're caught.