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The former official, J. William Leonard, said that in his 34 years with the federal government he saw routine overclassification of government documents, rarely saw it challenged and never saw it punished. But now that the Justice Department is seeking to imprison government workers for leaking classified information to the news media, Mr. Leonard said, it is especially critical to make sure that only genuine secrets are protected by law.

“If you’re talking about throwing someone in jail for years, there absolutely has to be responsibility for decisions about what gets classified,” said Mr. Leonard, who directed the Information Security Oversight Office from 2002 to 2007.