Reagan, National Security, and the First Amendment: Plugging Leaks by Shutting Off the Main

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During the brutal winter of 1983-84, water pipes frozeand burst in many houses. Leaks followed. A sensible way torepair such leaks is to fix the leaking pipes. An equallyefficient, albeit drastic, way to stop the leaks would be toshut off the main water supply to each house.

Leaks of classified information or of unclassified information known only within the cloistered halls of governmenthave been occurring for years. Much of this information hasbeen useful to the citizenry. It has included cost overrunson Defense Department boondoggles, the revelations publishedas The Pentagon Papers, and exposure of the peccadilloes,large and small, of government agencies and government officials. However, some of the information leaked has been geniunely damaging to national security. Such information hasranged from the top secret plans of Defense Department weaponry to the names of covert agents of the Central IntelligenceAgency (CIA).

How do we repair the dangerous leaks without shuttingoff the useful ones? Traditionally, government has taken aprudent and restrained course of action. For action to beconsidered, the Constitution and court decisions require thatthe existence of a leak be established and that the leak beshown to be extremely dangerous to the "house," threateningto undermine its foundation. Only after these requirementshave been met may we very carefully remove the particularportion of leaking pipe, examine it closely, and repair it.In doing so, we must make sure that the repairs do not causea blockage in our flow of information.

The Reagan administration, with the encouragement of theSupreme Court of the United States, has embarked on a differentapproach. The administration officials have driven up to the frontof our house, put on their work clothes, gotten out of their truck(license plate NSDD 84), unearthed the valve to our main, and begunclosing the valve. Clenched firmly in their hands and being usedas the wrench to close the valve is the Supreme Court's decisionin Snepp v. United States.

Frederick W. Whatley

Frederick W. Whatley is an attorney with the Cleveland law firm of Walter, Haverfield, Buescher & Chockley. He is the author of "Case Comment: Snepp v. United States," Cleveland State Law Review 30 (1981).