Back in April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website quietly posted Intelligence Community Directive 119, whose implications could be devastating for journalists. Bob speaks to Steven Aftergood about what effect this directive could have on contact between intelligence officials and the press.
BOB GARFIELD: The Central Intelligence Agency joined Twitter last Friday. The CIA’s first tweet was. “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” [LAUGHS] A little self-deprecating humor from those zany folks who brought us waterboarding, assassinations and countless overthrown governments, [LAUGHS] the kooks! Naturally, what followed was joking about never mind following the CIA, is the CIA following you, to which the agency responded with, “Thank you for the Twitter welcome. We look forward to sharing great hashtag #unclassified content with you.” Or not.
Back in April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website quietly posted Intelligence Community Directive 119. It was a casually posted PDF file, but its implications for journalists covering intelligence activities could be devastating. Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy watchdog at the Federation of American Scientists, says Intelligence Community Directive 119 essentially eradicates routine contact between intelligence officials and the press.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: It basically says that unless you’re a senior official of an intelligence agency, you are not supposed to engage in any kind of routine contact with a member of the media. You're not even supposed to discuss unclassified information. You are not supposed to say anything at all of substance, without prior approval from your agency.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it sets up a protocol which negates the very common practice of a reporter on a beat checking in with his or her sources routinely to run a story down or just to keep channels of communication open.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Exactly. I mean, I think it's correct to say the most national security reporters do not receive their stories all neatly tied up with a bow. Many very important stories begin with a hint or a rumor or a word of mouth that then gets chased down through conversation after conversation and finally develops into a coherent story. This directive will just throw a wrench into that whole process. It will become far more difficult to develop new sources or to really do reporting.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm guessing that people listening to this conversation, or some of them, are saying to themselves, well, wait a second, we’re talking about spies and this stuff is supposed to be secret. It makes perfect sense that they shouldn't be blabbing to reporters routinely, or otherwise.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, there has always been a prohibition against unauthorized disclosures of classified information. What makes this directive so disturbing is that it erases that distinction. It says you cannot talk about anything that is intelligence related. Some of the most important reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq War disclosed that there were dissenting views within the intelligence community about the state of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. Were those aluminum tubes usable in a nuclear weapons program or not? Those kind of dissenting views will become much more difficult to locate and report on under this kind of blanket prohibition that the intelligence community has adopted.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you know what triggered this move by the Obama administration? Is it related to the Snowden leaks?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence says that it predates Snowden, that it actually responds in part to an initiative in the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012. But the prohibition, even on unclassified information, is spectacularly heavy-handed. I think it’s ultimately going to backfire against the intelligence community itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Backfire how?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Well, you know, whether they realize it or not, I think the intelligence agencies benefit by being the object of independent reporting. You know, in the short-term, they may suffer some embarrassment but over time they gather a degree of public confidence and a kind of credibility. People also get a comfort level that if there’s something really going wrong, reporters are going to turn it up. This directive undermines that confidence, and it says, you're not gonna know about it, unless the intelligence community has approved it for public release, because alternate channels of information have been shut down.
BOB GARFIELD: When we’re talking about the intelligence community, there’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, it is, by definition, operating behind a veil of secrecy. On the other hand, it’s still a government [LAUGHS] entity, answerable to the people. Until now, there has always been room, has there not, for kind of routine reporting on non-classified matters that helped us have some window into the operations of the intelligence world. Can you tell me what’s that routine reporting, ‘til now, entailed and how much of it will just disappear?
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You're absolutely right that the business of intelligence at its core is conducted in secret. On the other hand, every single intelligence agency generates public information and has a public profile. A lot of that information helps to inform public judgments about threats that we face and options that we have for meeting them. Reporters follow up on all kinds of leads, not only about the substance of national security policy, but the conduct of the agencies themselves.
But what this new directive says is that the only news you should expect to receive in the future is authorized news. The dissenters, the internal critics, the whistleblowers, unless they receive permission in advance, are not supposed to talk to reporters. And if they do, it will be a security violation and a possible firing offense. So the whole ecosystem of national security reporting is going to be disrupted by this new directive.
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BOB GARFIELD: Steve, thank you.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven Aftergood is director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.