Senators consider softening measure cracking down on security leaks

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are considering changes that would cut the teeth out of legislation designed to crack down on national-security leaks.

The lawmakers are considering softening penalties for leaks in a committee-approved bill authorizing intelligence agencies before the legislation hits the Senate floor.

The bill approved by the committee would have stripped intelligence officials of their clearances for leaking to the press. It also would block national-security officials from making contact with the media even after they've left the government.

Both of those provisions might now be weakened because of pressure from critics of the bill, according to sources. After the Intelligence panel approved its version of the bill, it came under criticism from lawmakers and civil liberties groups who said it went too far in hampering media access on issues of national security.

A spokesman for Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Dems introduce bill to keep DACA info private U.S. banker tied to Russia sought access to Trump transition team: report Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds MORE (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence panel, acknowledged senators are taking these criticisms into account. The spokesman declined to comment on specific changes to the bill, but suggested they were possible.

"Sen. Feinstein is looking at the comments and is open to changes going forward. She has said the bill is a work in progress," spokesman Brian Weiss told The Hill on Monday regarding possible changes to the Senate legislation.

The full Senate is expected to consider the bill in the tight, eight-legislative-day window in September when lawmakers return from the August recess.

The Senate bill also required congressional notification of all authorized classified disclosures, and threatened to revoke federal pensions for members of the intelligence community who leak classified or otherwise sensitive national security information to the media and are convicted by a federal court for such crimes.

The House has already approved an intelligence authorization bill, but did not include language meant to crack down on leaks.

However, Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has publicly sided with Feinstein on enacting legislation with tough penalties on the leaks.

The Michigan Republican called the Senate bill’s leak provisions a "good first step."

A congressional aide said the House Intelligence panel would not be weighing in on possible changes to the Senate bill until that legislation is considered on the Senate floor.

In July, more than a dozen civil-liberties groups sent an open letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee claiming the anti-leak measures could instigate "suspicion, speculation or ... retaliation" against members of the intelligence community.

“This policy does not protect our nation’s legitimate secrets, but instead opens the door to abuse and chills critical disclosures of wrongdoing," according to the letter.

Lawmakers took a renewed interest in cracking down on national-security leaks after a series of media reports detailed critical, classified U.S. operations. These leaks included information about a U.S. cyberattack on Iran, a terrorist “kill list” and a double agent operating in Yemen.

Republicans have accused the White House of leaking the information for political gain. In response, President Obama said such claims were not only wrong, but "offensive" to his administration.

"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national-security information is offensive. It's wrong," Obama said in June.

Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder: If Trump directed Cohen to lie, impeachment proceedings ‘must begin’ William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump Protecting voices of all voters is critical to free and fair elections MORE assigned two U.S. attorneys to begin looking into the origins of the initial intelligence leaks.

These criticisms have not stopped the Defense Department from instituting its own rules to prevent information leaks from the Pentagon, however.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and the assistant secretary for Public Affairs to join together to “monitor all major, national-level media reporting for unauthorized disclosures of Defense Department classified information,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said on July 19.

The DOD chief also named the assistant secretary for Public Affairs the "sole release authority for all DOD information to news media in Washington," Little said at the time.

As part of the new rules, the Pentagon implemented requirements governing the use of removable storage devices on department computers and training on handling classified information.