Senator Joseph Lieberman and other lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime for anyone to publish the name of a U.S. intelligence source, in a direct swipe at the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks.
“The recent dissemination by Wikileaks of thousands of State Department cables and other documents is just the latest example of how our national security interests, the interests of our allies, and the safety of government employees and countless other individuals are jeopardized by the illegal release of classified and sensitive information,” said Lieberman in a written statement.
“This legislation will help hold people criminally accountable who endanger these sources of information that are vital to protecting our national security interests,” he continued.
The so-called SHIELD Act (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) would amend a section of the Espionage Act that already forbids publishing classified information on U.S. cryptographic secrets or overseas communications intelligence — i.e., wiretapping. The bill would extend that prohibition to information on HUMINT, human intelligence, making it a crime to publish information “concerning the identity of a classified source or informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United States,” or “concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government” if such publication is prejudicial to U.S. interests.
Leaking such information in the first place is already a crime, so the measure is aimed squarely at publishers.
Lieberman (ID-CT) has been going after WikiLeaks with a fury he once reserved for video-game zombies, pressuring first Amazon, and then data-visualization company Tableau, to blacklist the organization in the wake of this week’s State Department leak.
Lieberman’s proposed solution to WikiLeaks could have implications for journalists reporting on some of the more unsavory practices of the intelligence community. For example, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was once a paid CIA asset. Would reporting that now be a crime?
One thing the bill won’t do is put WikiLeaks, or founder Julian Assange, in any new legal jeopardy over the “Cablegate” database, the Afghan war logs, or the organization’s other recent high-profile leaks. That’s because the Constitution imposes a total ban on ex post facto criminal laws.
WikiLeaks first started getting heat over U.S. intelligence sources when it published a detailed and mostly classified log of 77,000 events in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan last July. Though it took some steps to keep informant’s names from the release, some of the published records nonetheless contained the names of Afghan informants, whom the Pentagon and various NGOs have said face potentially deadly reprisal from the Taliban. Months later, though, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone coming to harm from that leak.
WikiLeaks was more cautious with the 400,000 entry Iraq war logs it published in October, using an automated script to redact names from the data dump. And with the quarter-million State Department cables, WikiLeaks is trickling out the documents about 80 at a time, and apparently manually purging the names of U.S. sources as it goes.
But on Thursday a German politician admitted that he’d passed confidential information to U.S. diplomats, after a WikiLeaks cable describing an anonymous, well-placed U.S. informant in Germany set off a mole-hunt within that country’s Free Democratic Party.
The SHIELD Act is co-sponsored by senators John Ensign (R-NV) and Scott Brown (R-MA). The text of the bill is below.