by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News, Special Contributor to TheBlackVault.com
The Director of National Intelligence has forbidden most intelligence community employees from discussing “intelligence-related information” with a reporter unless they have specific authorization to do so, according to an Intelligence Community Directive that was issued last month.
“IC employees… must obtain authorization for contacts with the media” on intelligence-related matters, and “must also report… unplanned or unintentional contact with the media on covered matters,” the Directive stated.
The new Directive reflects — and escalates — tensions between the government and the press over leaks of classified information. It is intended “to mitigate risks of unauthorized disclosures of intelligence-related matters that may result from such contacts.” See Intelligence Community Directive 119, Media Contacts, March 20, 2014.
Significantly, however, the new prohibition does not distinguish between classified and unclassified intelligence information. The “covered matters” that require prior authorization before an employee may discuss them with a reporter extend to any topic that is “related” to intelligence, irrespective of its classification status.
The Directive prohibits unauthorized “contact with the media about intelligence-related information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities, and judgments (hereafter, ‘covered matters’).”
If an employee’s contact with the media involves an unauthorized disclosure of classified information, then he could be subject to criminal prosecution. But even if classified information were not communicated to the reporter, the Directive indicates, violation of the new policy “at a minimum… will be handled in the same manner as a security violation.”
“IC employees who are found to be in violation of this IC policy may be subject to administrative actions that may include revocation of security clearance or termination of employment,” the Directive states.
The new Directive creates an anomalous situation in which routine interactions that are permissible between an intelligence employee and an ordinary member of the public are now to be prohibited if that member of the public qualifies as “media.”
So under most circumstances, an intelligence community employee is at liberty to discuss unclassified “intelligence-related information” with his or her next-door neighbor. But if the neighbor happened to be a member of the media, then the contact would be prohibited altogether without prior authorization.
Meanwhile, the Directive defines membership in “the media” expansively. It is not necessary to be a credentialed reporter for an established news organization. It is sufficient to be “any person… engaged in the collection, production, or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security….”
Moreover, even approved contacts are to be formally documented for future review. “IC elements should ensure their records on media contacts are sufficient to support executive and legislative branch oversight requirements.”
Essentially, the Directive seeks to ensure that the only contacts that occur between intelligence community employees and the press are those that have been approved in advance. Henceforward, the only news about intelligence is to be authorized news.
The IC policy bears some resemblance to a proposal that was advanced by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012, and then withdrawn in response to widespread criticism.
The Senate’s initial version of the FY2012 intelligence authorization act (Section 506) would have required that only specifically designated officials would be permitted to provide “background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”
That provision would “lead to a less-informed debate on national security issues, by prohibiting nearly all intelligence agency employees from providing briefings to the press, unless those employees give their names and provide the briefing on the record,” said Sen. Ron Wyden at the time.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that prohibiting the intelligence agencies from providing these briefings would benefit national security in any way, so I see no reason to limit the flow of information in this manner,” he said then.
Likewise, there is no particular reason to think that routine interactions between intelligence agency employees and reporters — especially on unclassified matters — pose any kind of threat to national security, or that limiting them will offer any benefit. However, the new policy is likely to be effective in reducing the quality, independence and critical content of intelligence-related information that is available to the press and the public.
“I think we are going to make headway over the next few weeks on media leaks,” said outgoing National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander at an eventon March 4. At the time, it was unclear what he was referring to, but he might have had the March 20 Intelligence Community Directive 119 in mind.