WASHINGTON -- Amid intense debate over how far the government can go to keep its secrets secret, Congress is taking up an expansive intelligence measure that proposes tougher steps in cracking down on leaks of classified information and authorizes broad arrest powers for security officers at intelligence agencies.
Provisions tucked into the legislation, which the House is expected to vote on as early as tomorrow, represent a major departure from traditional intelligence agency roles in plugging leaks and conducting domestic law enforcement, according to government watchdog groups and intelligence professionals.
If the measure is approved by Congress, the nation's spy chief would be ordered to consider a plan for revoking the pensions of intelligence agency employees who make unauthorized disclosures. It also would permit security forces at the National Security Agency and the CIA to make warrantless arrests outside the gates of their top-secret campuses.
The new proposals, which have received little public attention, dovetail with an ongoing Bush administration crackdown on unauthorized leaks.
Last week, the CIA fired an employee accused of leaking classified information. Meanwhile, the government is testing the limits of its punishment powers in the courts, where it is prosecuting two pro-Israel lobbyists for receiving defense secrets.
Separately, a special prosecutor triggered a debate about First Amendment protections after he jailed a New York Times reporter last year until she agreed to testify in his investigation into the unmasking of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney accused of perjury in the Plame case, are seeking reporters' notes and other records in connection with his defense.
Critics described the potential penalties outlined in the measure as "draconian."
"In a moment when the intelligence community should be looking forward toward what it does best, the arrest powers represent a step back toward the Nixon-era abuses," said Jason Vest, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group.
The plan by Congress to target the pensions of intelligence agency employees would harm the overall spy effort, according to critics. Some, including former senior intelligence officials, warned that it would create an overly repressive environment within the agencies that could inhibit officers from speaking up, even internally, and discourage risk-taking.
The proposal to penalize leakers with loss of pension will do nothing "but keep good people from going to work in the [intelligence community] agencies," according to a senior intelligence official, who was quoted anonymously yesterday in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee from the Project on Government Oversight.
But a spokesman for the committee, Jamal Ware, said that stronger measures are necessary because "we have a serious problem with illegal leaks."
The pensions provision is a "first step" in a renewed effort to quash leaks, because current efforts have "not been an effective deterrent," according to a report by the House Intelligence panel. But it is unclear how such a penalty might be applied.
At least one retired intelligence officer, now working for the government as a private contractor, said that such a provision could apply to people like him.
The retired officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he recently received a call from an intelligence agency official "reminding" him that, as a private contractor, he was required to adhere to the same secrecy rules that apply to employees.
But he doubts that threatening pensions would stop leaks.
"All it's going to do is make people more sneaky," he said.
The measure also directs Congress to conduct a study of possible new sanctions against those who receive leaks of classified information, including journalists.
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said that such sanctions would represent a significant departure by the government, which usually targets only the person who leaks information, not the recipient.
"That is not the prevailing understanding under the law," he said. "If it were, [Washington Post reporter] Bob Woodward would not be a wealthy, best-selling author. He would be serving a life sentence."
At the request of National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte, the legislation would allow agency security forces at the NSA and CIA to make arrests outside the grounds of those agencies. Ware said the measure is "just clarifying the authority" of agency security officers "to arrest individuals."
It would apparently overrule a written opinion by the Maryland attorney general's office, which stated that the NSA's police powers are limited to the agency's grounds and to streets within a 500-foot perimeter of its Fort Meade campus.
The June 2005 opinion concluded that, under Maryland law, NSA officers "may make a citizen's arrest" and would have no immunity from liability for their actions if they are outside their jurisdiction. It notes that NSA officers can only carry firearms within that jurisdiction. The bill would allow them to carry guns.
Critics of the new arrest provision said it would create the potential for abuses.
Loch Johnson, a top Senate aide on the Church Committee, which investigated CIA abuses in the 1970s, called it a "worrisome" expansion of power.
"That's why we have the FBI and other law enforcement officials," he said. "I don't know that this needs to be an intelligence officer's function. I wouldn't think it should be."
Aftergood termed the proposal "shocking" and said "it raises the specter of a secret police force that is unaccountable and operates outside of the normal law enforcement parameters."
He said it would allow CIA and NSA security officers to arrest someone for drunken driving or tax evasion.
"If the committee thinks we need more police on the street, let them legislate that. But don't turn the CIA and NSA into auxiliary police forces," he said.
Asked about concerns raised by watchdog groups that the measure would greatly expand the police powers of the CIA and NSA, Intelligence Committee spokesman Ware said: "I don't know it to be true; I don't know it to be untrue."
Vest, of the Project on Government Oversight, said that even if the arrest powers were not used beyond the agencies' grounds, he is concerned about a "slippery slope" toward wider arrests in the future. He raised concerns about the potential for abuses, noting that Nixon-era programs known as Resistance and Merrimac, which investigated domestic political groups, were carried out by the CIA's Office of Security.
CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said he could not comment on pending legislation. NSA spokesman Don Weber also declined to comment on the measure.
But Weber emphasized that the NSA security force "is not a part of the national intelligence mission; they are here to protect assets, including NSA employees."