Although it has received scant media attention amid a torrent of election coverage, President Clinton did something praiseworthy: he vetoed legislation that would punish those who disclose national-security secrets to three years in prison.

The security provisions--requested by the Central Intelligence Agency and drafted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence--are another example of attempts by the security bureaucracy since the late 1940s to enact a draconian security law similar to the United Kingdom’s Official Secrets Act. On matters of national security, British law makes the British press the least free in the Western world. By contrast, the United States has had the most unconstrained debate on its foreign and defense policies of any nation in the world.

In a republic, some things are more important than safeguarding government “secrets.” In the short term, some leaks of classified information can erode national security, but stringent congressional action to plug those leaks may cause even greater long-term damage by stifling the open debate so vital to a free society. If we indulge those who want rigid secrecy, government officials who commit unconstitutional, corrupt or grossly incompetent acts could cover up their wrongdoing simply by classifying evidence and threatening to prosecute any whistleblowers.

“Inconvenient” information is already classified by the government to avoid embarrassment. The problem will worsen if whistleblowers are muzzled by a new law. For example, anti-leak legislation might have prevented the disclosure of government duplicity during the Vietnam War, unconstitutional acts by the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra scandal, and safety violations at nuclear power plants.

Furthermore, information may be suppressed that is vital to the informed debate of national security matters--for example, the severity of foreign threats, how big the military needs to be and how much money is needed to fund it, whether certain weapon systems should be purchased, and where and why the military is committed to battle. In a democracy, stifling the already insufficient debate on such key issues would have a much greater adverse effect on national security than would sporadic leaks of classified tidbits.

And even the harmful effects of those leaks are exaggerated. Substantial amounts of government information have been needlessly classified. For example, U.S. embassies send classified cables that are nothing more than summaries of open media reports in the host country. In addition, some classified information is already known to foreign governments and is a secret only to the American people.

Leaks are frequent in Washington because security bureaucrats realize that much of the information they possess shouldn’t be classified anyway. If the government declassified all information except the small amount truly vital to the nation’s security, faith in the system would be restored and substantially fewer leaks would occur. More important, now that a more peaceful post-Cold War environment exists, the government should be loosening its grip on classified data--not tightening it.

Yet the legislation Clinton wisely vetoed--which was rammed through Congress without public hearings--would have expanded the scope of punishable information disclosures. Current law already punishes disclosures that expose intelligence operatives, aid foreign governments, or undermine national defense. The legislation would have broadened coverage to include any disclosure of classified information to an unauthorized party, expanded the definition of what is classified to initiate the investigation of a leak and relieved prosecutors of even the need to prove that the leak has damaged national security.

Such proposals would harm our democratic society in order to “protect” it. Public debate is crucial in maintaining our unique freedoms. Threatening the exchange of information to prevent sporadic leaks of information--much of which shouldn’t be kept from the public anyway--is a poor trade-off.