The 2013 intel authorization bill and the only vote that matters


Before hurtling deeper into the maw of the new year, let’s note an important victory for the First Amendment from the end of 2012.

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, cast the only dissenting vote when the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a version of the 2013 intelligence authorization bill that would have severely chilled news coverage of critical national security issues.

The bill included several misguided anti-leak provisions, including new limits on background briefings by intelligence officials, a constitutionally questionable prohibition on a broad range of former government employees providing paid analysis or commentary on intelligence matters, and the ability to strip intelligence officers of their pensions if they disclose classified information, even if the disclosure poses no harm to national security.

By placing a hold on the legislation and asking his colleagues to reconsider the bill’s approach to addressing unauthorized disclosures of classified information, Mr. Wyden forced a conversation the Senate needed to have and ultimately persuaded Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and other key players to drop the most troubling provisions.

“I think Congress should be extremely skeptical of any anti-leaks bills that threaten to encroach upon the freedom of the press, or that would reduce access to information that the public has a right to know,” Mr. Wyden said in a floor statement.

The Senator did not fare as well in his fight to obtain basic information about how the government’s program of warrantless wiretapping, begun under President George W. Bush, is being carried out and how it is affecting Americans’ privacy. His proposal to force greater disclosure failed by a 42-52 vote, and thus was omitted in the five year extension of the FISA Amendment Act President Obama signed on Dec. 30. Maybe he’ll have better luck in 2017.