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Opinion

Editorial: Congress is rushing to make the CIA less accountable

CIA Director Gina Haspel accompanied by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testifies bef
CIA Director Gina Haspel, with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on Jan. 29.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

It’s already a crime to identify a covert intelligence agent or confidential informant working overseas. But even though the law has only been used twice in 37 years — and even though no persuasive case has been made that it needs to be toughened or expanded — Congress is now proposing to broaden it, imposing new restrictions on free speech.

It needs to slow down and demand evidence that a new version of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act is necessary and that it won’t be wielded to silence whistleblowers or make it harder for the press to report on abuses.

In its present form, the law allows for the prosecution of anyone who discloses the identity of a covert agent who has served outside the United States during the previous five years or a foreign-based U.S. citizen whose relationship with an intelligence agency is classified. The law assumes that operatives posted in foreign countries face a special danger from exposure of their identities.

Even though the law has only been used twice in 37 years, Congress is now proposing to broaden it, imposing new restrictions on free speech.
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But at the behest of the CIA, Congress is considering removing the requirement that an agent or informant live outside the United States; that way, the law would apply to operatives in the U.S. as well. The change could be voted on this week.

The CIA argued that the changes are necessary in light of “ever-evolving threats, including cyberthreats” and pointed to disclosures by WikiLeaks as well as revelations about the agency’s treatment of suspected terrorists. An agency spokesman told the New York Times that in the last five years, “hundreds of covert officers have had their identity and covert affiliation disclosed without authorization.” The CIA has not presented evidence, at least publicly, that its agents’ lives are in danger or have been lost as a result of disclosure.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he didn’t believe the expanded law would be used against journalists, and noted that the earlier version hadn’t been either.

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Journalists aren’t so sanguine. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has warned that the proposed amendments would “upset the balance carefully struck by Congress and make journalists, especially national security and investigative reporters, more vulnerable to potential criminal liability for disclosing classified information.”

On another front, one of the two uses of the 1982 law was to prosecute former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who provided a reporter with the name of an undercover operative who had been linked to brutal interrogation tactics during the George W. Bush administration.

Before approving any change in the law, Congress should listen to those concerns — and demand from the CIA proof that new restrictions are necessary to protect the lives of its operatives. So far the case has not been made.

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