The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today decided to postpone action on a controversial bill that would have given the executive branch unprecedented power to crack down on alleged security leakers.

President Clinton vetoed the measure last year, and Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama reintroduced it by attaching it to a bill funding intelligence operations for 2001. Shelby anticipated support from President Bush, but it was not forthcoming. Shelby agreed to the postponement after it became clear earlier today that the Bush administration would not support the measure either.

A White House spokesman said “President Bush is extremely concerned about leaks that do grave damage to national security, but current laws already make it a crime to provide many categories of classified information.”

The most irresponsible provisions of the Shelby proposal would allow the executive branch to expand the definition of what constitutes classified information without any procedure whatsoever, or any definition of classification, and make it unnecessary for prosecutors to prove that an unauthorized disclosure damaged national security.

The effect of this would be to give the executive branch the power to arbitrarily decide, even retroactively, if a given piece of information was ‘classified.’ Without needing to prove anything more than an individual with a security clearance had leaked it, prosecutors could gain a conviction.

The Administration has proposed that an interagency working group; be set up to determine if a new law is needed. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed opposition to the Shelby Bill, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R. Wis.) has said that he would object to the measure being attached to the House Intelligence Authorization Bill this year.

One of the mysteries about this legislation is who is really behind it. Shelby has the support of unnamed senators and, presumably, elements within the intelligence community who fear the gradual reduction of secrecy that has followed the cold war, and want to put a stop to it. CIA Director George Tenet, planned to emphasize his concerns about the legislation at today’s hearing.

Opinion: The White House and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were bombarded with protests about the Shelby Bill, from people of all ideologies. Many of those protests came from this website, based on our previous story on this issue. Public protest played an important part in scuttling a bill that was not just bad, but openly indifferent to our cherished freedoms. If we need more protection against leaks, it is to be hoped that the interagency working group will author balanced legislation that respects our national traditions.

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