A CIA-backed provision for a bill that could have dire effects on the freedom of the press is quietly making its way through Congress, despite the protestations of civil rights groups to Rep. Adam Schiff, the powerful California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, to strip the rule.
"Adam Schiff is once again putting the interests of the intelligence agencies in concealing their misdeeds ahead of protecting the rights of ordinary Americans," said Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress, in a statement Thursday.
In the statement, Schuman also accused Schiff of "criminalizing routine reporting by the press on national security issues and undermining congressional oversight in his Intelligence Authorization bill."
Demand Progress was one of 30 groups that signed an open letter (pdf) on July 8 to congressional leaders of both parties calling for the provision to be stripped from the bill.
"This provision is an extremely broad expansion of felony criminal penalties, and delegates authority as to when those penalties apply to the executive branch," reads the letter. "It would be significantly damaging to transparency, oversight, and accountability, and should be removed from the Intelligence Authorization Act."
"Schiff's expansion of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act beyond all reason will effectively muzzle reporting on torture, mass surveillance, and other crimes against the American people—all at the request of the CIA."
—Daniel Schuman, Demand Progress
Section 305 of the Intelligence Authorization Act (pdf), which prohibits disclosure of the identity of agents currently in the field or who have been in the field in the last five years, would be tweaked under the new law to encompass the identities of a far larger number of agents, contractors, and sources—many of whom live and work domestically.
The effect of the law could be massive, Emily Manna, a policy analyst for Open the Government, told Yahoo News in an email.
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"This language is almost unbelievably broad, drastically expanding felony criminal penalties for the disclosure of [many categories] of information about the intelligence agencies, even if those disclosures might be in the best interest of the government and the country," wrote Manna. "There would likely be a significant chilling effect on journalists and government whistleblowers."
Supporters of the law's expansion cite WikiLeaks, the online clearinghouse for secure information, as the reason for needing further protections. It's an argument that's likely to have an effect on Schiff, who has spent much of the past two years railing against the site for its perceived involvement in the election of President Donald Trump.
Schiff, one of the favorite guests of MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," has cultivated an image of a hero to the so-called liberal "resistance" to Trump since 2017, something that Demand Progress' Schuman took aim at in his statement.
"Schiff's expansion of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act beyond all reason will effectively muzzle reporting on torture, mass surveillance, and other crimes against the American people—all at the request of the CIA," said Schuman. "Schiff is clearly the resistance to the resistance, and he should drop this provision from his bill."
As The New York Times reported, the law's expansion "also comes at a time when defense lawyers at the military commissions system at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are trying to identify eyewitnesses from the CIA black sites whom they could potentially call to testify about their clients’ treatment, including in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other detainees accused of aiding the Sept. 11 attacks."
Using the law to protect those and other CIA agents could act as deterrent to an accountable intelligence service, Katherine Hawkins, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, told Yahoo News.
"There's ongoing efforts to prevent CIA evidence from entering courts," said Hawkins. "I do think it would be used as justification for why CIA officers can't be prosecuted. I think that would have a bad effect on accountability."