Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a new directive in March that prohibits staff at 17 federal agencies including the FBI, CIA and parts of DHS from talking to the news media. The order covers not only classified information, but unclassified as well, effectively preventing any news or information about U.S. intelligence activities from reaching the public unless it is “authorized.” The order imposes sanctions ranging from disciplinary actions to firing to criminal prosecution for unauthorized contact, but since there are already civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of classified information, this new directive looks more like a gag order aimed at preventing disclosure of inconvenient or embarrassing information.
The story was broken last Monday on Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News website, by Steven Aftergood. Aftergood writes, “[…], 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.”
This is similar to the sentiments expressed in a Washington Post editorial which rightly remarked that U.S. intelligence agencies should be working to ‘regain the confidence and trust of the American people‘ not clamping down further into secrecy. “Mr. Clapper’s own performance — his untruthful answer to a question in an open congressional hearing about government surveillance programs — should give everyone pause about his commitment to transparency.” What is particularly galling is that DDF and open government groups fought this battle in 2012 when the Senate Intelligence Committee attempted to impose a similar gag on the intelligence community in an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization bill.
We were able to convince Senator Feinstein that the restrictions were anti-free press and unnecessary and she pulled the amendment. Clapper’s directive is a disturbingly authoritarian move (especially coming from the what President Obama promised would be the “most transparent administration in history.”) Trust, transparency, accountability. Few Americans would characterize their government with these terms today. Clapper’s directive also raises concern about the criminalization of federal whistleblowers who – having witnessed waste, fraud, abuse or illegality – suffer retaliation including jail time for bringing national security-related lawlessness to light.
The Project on Government Oversight cites Presidential Policy Directive 19 that deals with Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information as part of their excellent discussion of the need for – and de facto lack of – ‘strong, independent due process procedures’ and a ‘protected path of disclosure to entities independent of the Intelligence Community’. We wholeheartedly agree.