U.S. intelligence chief bars unauthorized contacts with reporters on all intel-related matters

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. MCT

Employees of U.S. intelligence agencies have been barred from discussing any intelligence-related matter _even if it isn’t classified _ with journalists without authorization, according to a new directive by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Intelligence agency employees who violate the policy could suffer career-ending losses of their security clearances or outright termination, and those who disclose classified information might face criminal prosecution, according to the directive, which Clapper signed March 20 but was made public only Monday by Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

Under the order, only the director or deputy head of an intelligence agency, public affairs officials and those authorized by public affairs officials may have contact with journalists on intelligence-related matters.

The order doesn’t distinguish between classified and unclassified matters. It covers a range of intelligence-related information, including, it says, “intelligence sources, methods, activities and judgments.”

It includes a sweeping definition of who’s a journalist, which it asserts is “any person . . . engaged in the collection, production or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security.”

The order represents the latest move by the Obama administration to stifle leaks. It bolsters another administration initiative called the Insider Threat Program, which requires federal employees to report co-workers who show any of a broad variety of “high risk” behaviors that might indicate they could be sources of unauthorized releases of classified or unclassified material.

President Barack Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group.

The administration redoubled its crackdown after leaks to news media of classified information about the National Security Agency’s top-secret communications data-collection operations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Clapper’s new directive “is a response to the same basic anxiety: that intelligence employees might be talking out of school,” said Aftergood. “It’s what I think is a rather heavy-handed attempt to crack down on unauthorized communications. It doesn’t specify that it’s limited to classified information and indeed, disclosures of classified information are already prohibited if unauthorized.”

“IC employees . . . must obtain authorization for contacts with the media” when it comes to intelligence-related matters, and they “must also report . . . unplanned or unintentional contact with the media on covered matters,” the directive says.

Aftergood said Clapper’s order could end up hurting the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community by limiting the discussion of events to what’s approved by his office. Alternate voices that might call attention to inaccurate or incomplete statements will be smothered or dissuaded from speaking out, Aftergood said.

“Whether because of deception or error or whatever it might be, the authorized official view is not always the right one and it is usually incomplete,” Aftergood said.

The U.S. intelligence community already has a substantial record of issuing inaccurate or abbreviated information to the public, from bogus and exaggerated information on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to Clapper’s misleading testimony to Congress on the collection of Americans’ private communications data.