Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl floated an amendment last week attached to Senate Bill 236, which, as it stands now, would require agencies conducting "data mining" operations to make reports to Congress. Data mining is sifting through large amounts of information to find patterns that, in this case, point to potential terrorist activity.
Kyl's amendment, broadly worded, would have criminalized the dissemination of information "concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate or prevent terrorist activity."
Media groups clearly felt the amendment put them in the crosshairs, sending a number of them, including the Sunshine in Government Initiative, scurrying to head off the amendment at the pass. The Sunshine in Government Initiative, which counts The Associated Press and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (of which the Tucson Weekly is a member) among its nine constituents, "is a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure the government is accessible, accountable and open," according to its Web site.
"I thought this was kind of a strange approach to it, to go through Feingold's bill, and I know that Feingold wasn't happy about it," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is also a Sunshine member. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, sponsored the bill.
Kyl's office didn't respond to calls from the Weekly seeking comment.
However, a Kyl spokesman reportedly backpedaled after the groups mobilized, telling Rebecca Carr of the Austin American-Statesman that the amendment, as originally proposed, was only a draft.
Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Coalition, said Kyl is now trying to add a revised version to a Sept. 11 bill being considered this week by the Senate.
"The language (is) still fairly broad," Blum said. "It's a little bit narrower in some respects, but it still does lower the standard for prosecuting people who publish classified information in any one of 28 different reports dealing with Sept. 11, homeland security and the PATRIOT Act."
Dalglish thinks even the revised proposal goes too far.
"It struck me that it's still problematic, in that it criminalizes behavior that we don't think it's necessary to criminalize," she said. "We think that there are perfectly adequate statutes out there that protect what he needs to protect, and we think it will have a dramatic chilling effect on members of Congress.
"We have remained actively opposed to it. It's not as bad as it was, because it was broad as heck before, but it's still not good."
Both Dalglish and Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said such legislation rears its ugly head at least once every Congress.
"It's just a nasty situation," Dalglish said. "We're dealing with it all the time."
There's always been tension between the media and members of Congress who want to control access to information, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, branding information as vital to national security became an easy way for some government officials to satisfy a crack-like addiction to secrecy.
McDermott said she believes a great quantity of politically damaging dirt is classified when it shouldn't be. In other words, this is information journalists could be reporting on to the detriment of politicians, who don't want their dirty laundry aired before the American public.
"I think that the classification order specifically prohibits using the classification system to hide embarrassing or illegal activities--inconvenient truths, as it were," she said. "Government officials from the Department of Defense to the Information Security Oversight Office have admitted that at least 50 percent and maybe more of what is classified is 'overclassified,' and that a good percentage of it shouldn't be classified in the first place."
As for the Kyl legislation, McDermott said numerous laws already protect the specifics on methods used to gather information on potential terrorist attacks. But people should know when the government oversteps its bounds, she said.
"That the government is conducting investigations and, in many cases, it may be breaking the law in the process of conducting those investigations, is something that the public has the right to know," McDermott said. "It should be debated."
Fortunately, the climate in Washington, D.C., for talking about such things has improved since the November elections, when the GOP was swept from power, according to Dalglish. There's certainly more of a willingness to restrain the executive branch.
"The lawmakers who were afraid to say something in the past now feel a little bit more empowered because of the results of the election--because, you know, essentially, Bush was fired in November, and so was Congress," Dalglish said. "We're starting on a fresh page, and people who--and I can speak about this from firsthand experience--were willing to stand up, stick their neck out and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Now we've gone too far,' would get hate mail and death threats. Now, when you go on TV, and you talk about some of these things, instead of people calling in and saying, 'You're an unpatriotic idiot,' they're saying, 'Thank you for speaking up. Thank you so much.'
"There was a time between about 2001 and 2005, where all you had to do is burp out the words 'national security' to get something closed. It was really stupid and counterproductive and alarming."