NEW YORK - President Clinton on Saturday vetoed a bill that would have criminalized the leaking of government secrets. The legislation, he said, might ''chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.''
The proposal had drawn criticism from news organizations which said it would stifle their ability to obtain information vital to the public.
''We must never forget that the free flow of information is essential to a democratic society,'' Clinton said in a statement.
He cited the ''badly flawed provision'' as the reason he vetoed a bill that authorizes spending for the CIA, National Security Agency and other intelligence activities for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The total intelligence budget is classified and is not made public, but is believed to be about $30 billion.
The president urged Congress ''to pursue a more narrowly drawn provision tested in public hearings so that those they represent can also be heard on this important issue.''
GOP Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the administration did not express concerns about the provision in earlier negotiations.
''To veto this critical piece of legislation now is disruptive and may send a dangerous signal to those who would harm U.S. interests,'' Goss said.
The provision would have extended penalties that now exist for leaking classified, national defense information, to the leaking of other classified, but nondefense data that could harm the United States if made public or given to foreign governments.
Clinton said he agreed with congressional sponsors of the legislation that unauthorized disclosures of classified information ''can be extraordinarily harmful to United States national security and that too many such disclosures occur.''
''Those who disclose classified information inappropriately commit a gross breach of the public trust and may recklessly put our national security at risk,'' he said.
Clinton, however, said that in dispute was not the seriousness of the problem but the best way to respond to it.
''As president ... it is my responsibility to protect not only our government's vital information from improper disclosure but also to protect the rights of citizens to receive the information necessary for democracy to work,'' he said.
The president said it takes a careful balance to reconcile the goals of protecting national security and the public's right to know. ''This legislation does not achieve the proper balance,'' Clinton said.
Four of the nation's largest news organizations - CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Newspaper Association of America - asked Clinton last week to veto the bill.
They and other critics, including some from both parties in Congress, feared the measure could have silenced whistle-blowers and stopped news media from getting information to the public.
Clinton said the measure could chill the legitimate activities of government officials.
''A desire to avoid the risk that their good faith choice of words - their exercise of judgment - could become the subject of a criminal referral for prosecution might discourage government officials from engaging even in appropriate public discussion, press briefings, or other legitimate official activities,'' Clinton said.
The legislation also could have also discouraged or restrained former government officials from teaching, writing or engaging ''in any activity aimed at building public understanding of complex issues,'' he said.
''Incurring such risks is unnecessary and inappropriate in a society built on freedom of expression and the consent of the governed and is particularly inadvisable in a context in which the range of classified materials is so extensive,'' he said.
''In such circumstances, this criminal provision would, in my view, create an undue chilling effect,'' Clinton said.
Attorney General Janet Reno predicted last week that the provision would not have dramatically increased the number of prosecutions. The proposal would have closed what she called ''a very narrow gap'' in existing law. She said the difficulty finding leakers rather than the legal gap was the reason for the small number of prosecutions.
The only leak prosecution in recent memory occurred in 1985 when a Navy researcher was prosecuted for leaking a satellite photo of a Soviet Navy ship under construction to the publication, Jane's Fighting Ships. But there are numerous leak investigations that fall short of prosecution, although some have lead to resignations or administrative discipline.
On the Net:
Information on the bill, H.R. 4392, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/