Expansion of Secrecy Law for Intelligence Operatives Alarms Free Press Advocates

Another part of the identities law, which prosecutors have not used, might apply to journalists under some circumstances. It covers outsiders who do not have authorized access to classified information but learn about and disclose covert identities anyway, “in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents.”

It is possible that the law needs to be updated because of technological advances since 1982, like the arrival of the internet, said Steve Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist for the Federation of American Scientists. But he portrayed the legislative push as premature.

“I don’t see a justification for this,” he said. “Because it affects public access to information, it requires a public justification, and that has not been presented. I’m open to being persuaded, but the case had not been made.”

In a House committee report accompanying the 1982 bill, lawmakers stressed that they intended to limit its coverage to clandestine agents abroad, or agents who may be “temporarily in the United States for rest, training, or reassignment” before returning abroad, because they face special dangers.

The 1982 report also said that the public should be able to discuss intelligence informants living in the United States, saying they “may be employees of colleges, churches, the media, or political organizations. The degree of involvement of these groups with intelligence agencies is a legitimate subject of national debate.”

But in its justification to Congress, the C.I.A. wrote that changes since 1982, including “cyber threats,” meant Congress’s rationale for limiting protections to overseas agents was obsolete.

“Thirty-seven years later, the threats undercover agency officers face are evolving and are no longer limited to those officers who are serving abroad or have done so recently,” the C.I.A. wrote.