COLUMN-The top spook's stupid gag order

by Reuters
Tuesday, 22 April 2014 16:00 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

April 22 (Reuters) - The nation's top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about "intelligence-related information" unless officially authorized to speak. Intelligence Community Directive 119, signed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last month and made public Monday in a report by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, threatens to reduce the flow of information from the national security establishment to the press - and hence the public.

As Aftergood notes, Directive 119 does not merely bar intelligence community employees from sharing classified intelligence information with reporters. It also bars the discussion with the media of unclassified intelligence information "related" to intelligence. Under Directive 119, any and all conversations between spooks and reporters not explicitly authorized by top officials will be criminalized at the worst or potentially put intelligence employees out of a job at the least. The same discussion of unclassified matters between an intelligence community employee and a non-reporter would be allowed, Aftergood further notes.

Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment - no matter how innocuous - will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities.

Directive 119 achieves through executive order much of what the spooks tried to accomplish legislatively in the summer of 2012, when the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a measure that would have banned background briefings between reporters and all intelligence officials except "press officers and agency directors or deputy directors," as Reuters correspondent Mark Hosenball reported. Such briefings have been routine during most recent presidential administrations, Hosenball wrote. An avalanche of protests smothered the measure, killing it until Clapper resurrected elements of it in Directive 119.

The tussle between secret-keepers in government and the secret-sharers in the press goes back to the founding of the republic, as Rahul Sagar delineates in his recent book "Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy," which I reviewed earlier this year. Efforts like Directive 119 - designed to restrict the flow of information - can lead to unintended results, Sagar found. By tightening the normal circle of secrecy, a president automatically reduces the number of advisers he can draw on to make decisions, and this reduces the amount of brainpower that can shine on an intelligence issue or a foreign crisis and increases conformity. Administrations that "turn inward" tend to exclude dissidents and doubters - emboldening loyalists and suck-ups, and hindering oversight and debate.

One excessively ingrown presidential administration, as you may recall, acted on its excessively ingrown intelligence information and analysis to invade a foreign land to capture diabolical biological and chemical weapons that didn't exist. If ever we needed more unauthorized leaks to neutralize all the authorized leaks of bogus information to gullible reporters, it was during the prelude to that war.

Congress would have little idea of what the White House was doing if not for news reports based on leaks of classified information, Sagar writes, making the leaks and the press reports essential to governance and the avoidance of an imperial presidency. He quotes former Representative Norman Mineta, who as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence once said, "We are like mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us a lot of manure."

But don't weep for Congress. They're the ones who criminalized leaks of classified information in the first place. This paradox, noted by Sagar, means Congress prohibits the very sustenance required to keep itself informed about the executive branch. As an executive order, Directive 119 impinges on the authority of Congress to police the president: In a perfect world Congress would refuse the manure being fed to it, demand real information, and legislate a reversal of Directive 119. On the other hand, if you liked the war in Iraq, you'll love Directive 119.

Another of Sagar's findings, worthy of mention in the Directive 119 discussion, is that extreme state-secrecy tends to short-circuit the checks and balancing process that keeps the president from vectoring off in a dictatorial direction. Members of Congress who criticize an administration's national security policies can find themselves marginalized in debates by a strong-armed president, as was the case with Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). As a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Wyden knew much about the National Security Agency's runaway surveillance programs. But owing to the position of trust he occupied, he could not inform the public of those programs in a way that would allow them to be debated. Not until NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked his stash to reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman (talk about unauthorized contact between an intelligence community employee and the press!) was an honest and needed debate about domestic surveillance possible.

Directive 119 might make sense if the administration could point to a pattern of unauthorized discussions that has done lasting damage to national security. But that it does not do. Instead, it tightens the circle. And it feeds us all another helping of dung. (Jack Shafer)

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