Washington President Clinton vetoed legislation Saturday that would have sent federal officials to jail for disclosing classified information, saying such a law might stifle "legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy."
In his veto message, Clinton said the bill failed "to achieve the proper balance" between the government's duty to protect national security and its responsibility to ensure the "free flow of information essential to a democratic society."
Clinton rejected recommendations that he sign the measure from Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and CIA Director George Tenet, who are alarmed over a growing number of leaks of classified information.
The veto was hailed as a victory for free speech by news media and other critics.
They had decried the legislation as an attempt to silence whistleblowers and tighten government secrecy at the expense of the public's right to know.
"The president did the right thing here," said John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, which represents 2,000 newspapers in the United States. "He decided that this provision went too far in withholding information from the public."
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed disappointment. "The damage to national security by leaks is as great or greater than that caused by espionage," he said.
The provision was contained in the 2001 intelligence community budget, passed last month by Congress.
Clinton urged lawmakers to strip out the provision and pass the budget again when they return for a post-election session.
The provision would have made it a felony for current or former officials or other citizens with security clearances to disclose properly classified information without authorization. A conviction would bring a fine and imprisonment for up to three years.
Under current law, only disclosures of certain secrets, including nuclear weapons designs and the names of intelligence agents, are crimes. Other disclosures can result in losses of security clearance, dismissal and fines.