Open government and free speech groups denounced a Senate bill that would strip intelligence employees of their pensions if they improperly leaked classified intelligence. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., above, said the culture of leaks has to change in the intelligence community. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Twenty-three open government and free speech groups are denouncing a Senate bill that would strip current or former intelligence employees of their pensions if an agency head decides an employee has improperly leaked classified information.
Revoking pension benefits “is an extraordinary penalty that should not be imposed unless the government proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” the groups, which include the Project on Government Oversight, said Monday in an open letter to the Senate.
Current law allows the government to revoke current or former employees’ pensions if they are convicted of illegally disclosing classified information. But the Senate’s 2013 intelligence authorization bill, S 3454, which was passed 14-1 July 25 by the Senate Intelligence Committee, would allow agencies to impose the penalty without a criminal conviction.
The bill provides no avenues for independent due process and establishes no legal burdens of proof that the Director of National Intelligence or other agency head must meet. As a result, the groups said, the government could use its “unrestrained discretion” to suppress speech criticizing the intelligence community and retaliate against whistle-blowers.
“Section 511 [which expands the government’s ability to revoke pensions] is not an anti-leaks policy, it’s an anti-speech policy,” the letter said. “This policy does not protect our nation’s legitimate secrets, but instead opens the door to abuse and chills critical disclosures of wrongdoing.”
But committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said “the culture of leaks has to change.”
“The collection and analysis of intelligence is essential to protecting our citizens and country,” Feinstein said in a July 25 release. “Leaks of classified information regarding intelligence sources and methods can disrupt intelligence operations, threaten the lives of intelligence officers and assets, and make foreign partners less likely to work with us.”
The bill would also allow the government to impose other unspecified disciplinary actions on accused leakers without a trial.
And it would bar any intelligence employee but each agency’s director and deputy director and public affairs officials from speaking to the media on background or off-the-record about intelligence matters. It would only allow other intelligence employees to speak to the media during “authorized, unclassified, on-the-record briefings.”
The Federation of American Scientists, Government Accountability Project, and American Civil Liberties Union also signed the letter.