WASHINGTON — Reporters who write about government surveillance could be prosecuted under proposed legislation that would solidify the administration's eavesdropping authority, according to some legal analysts who are concerned about dramatic changes in U.S. law.
But an aide to the bill's chief author, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said that is not the intention of the legislation.
"It in no way applies to reporters — in any way, shape or form," said Mike Dawson, a senior policy adviser to DeWine, responding to an inquiry Friday afternoon. "If a technical fix is necessary, it will be made."
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the draft of the legislation, which could be introduced as soon as next week.
The draft would add to the criminal penalties for anyone who "intentionally discloses information identifying or describing" the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program or any other eavesdropping program conducted under a 1978 surveillance law.
Fines of up to $1 million, 15 years in jail
Under the boosted penalties, those found guilty could face fines of up to $1 million, 15 years in jail or both.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said the measure is broader than any existing laws. She said, for example, the language does not specify that the information has to be harmful to national security or classified.
"The bill would make it a crime to tell the American people that the president is breaking the law, and the bill could make it a crime for the newspapers to publish that fact," said Martin, a civil liberties advocate.
DeWine is co-sponsoring the bill with Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The White House and Republican Senate leaders have indicated general support, but the bill could face changes as it works its way through Congress.
Existing U.S. law makes it a crime to disclose classified information to an unauthorized person, generally putting the burden on government officials to protect the information.
But a special provision exists to provide added protections for highly classified electronic — or "signals" — intelligence. That would include U.S. intelligence codes or systems used to break them.
Government officials potential targets
David Tomlin, the AP's assistant general counsel, said government officials with security clearances would be potential targets under DeWine's bill.
"But so would anyone else who received an illegal disclosure under the proposed act, knew what it was and deliberately disclosed it to others. That's what some reporters do, often to great public benefit," he said.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the language would allow anyone — "if you read a story in the paper and pass it along to your brother-in-law" — to be prosecuted.
"As a practical matter, would they use this to try to punish any newspaper or any broadcast? It essentially makes coverage of any of these surveillance programs illegal," she said. "I'm sorry, that's just not constitutional."
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