The top spook’s stupid gag order

April 21, 2014

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.


My favorite quotation cited in Secrets and Leaks: “[A]n increase in the secrecy of governmental action may be taken as an index of the draft for the garrison state in America.” Send your favorites to and watch my Twitter feed for quotations from the work of Ben Hecht. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper appears before the House Intelligence Committee on “Worldwide Threats” in Washington February 4, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron 

Accused government whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen as he speaks via video conference with members of the Committee on legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during a hearing on “mass surveillance” at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler 


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It’s so marvelously comic to have such a ludicrous looking top spook with the name of Clopper!

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

So true Jack, so very true. L.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

His next directive is going to make it illegal for anybody to talk to anybody else about anything. Word is O’bama’s in favor of it ..

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

Wow! This is a police state.

Posted by Lilydaisy | Report as abusive

This is more complex than is being represented in this article. I won’t pretend to be sophisticated enough to have an answer. I think I know a few things though. For example, ‘Loose lips sink ships’, is just as applicable today as when it was coined.

Moreover, while I am pretty sure Mr. Clapper’s mission isn’t an easy one, and I certainly believe he thinks he’s doing what needs doing (and I generally support this), neither should the government take this as the security apparatus having my carte blanche support. Why not? Because something we’re doing are beyond silly.

For example, TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) actually preclude people from playing with their toy airplanes and have an adverse economic impact on general aviation. It’s entirely due to political abuse and is beyond stupid. Why? Simply because they’re self-defeating since they actually inform the bad guys where our political leaders are (and where they plan to be). Duh!

And don’t get me started with TSA and Homeland Security because I believe this was the FBI ‘s bailiwick to begin with instead of creating a whole new Federal bureaucracy.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

Really Jack? Spy’s are secretive? Wow, I never would have thought. Heck, even corporate America doesn’t allow employees to talk the media. he media shouldn’t eve be allowed to now who the janitor is or they would try and exploit him.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Sticky keyboard this morning…

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

wait, so this guy just said to US spies that they should not talk to the press about… secret stuff.

isn’t that in the job description?

“Ideal candidate should be
willing to kill
willing to invade other’s privacy
willing to break the law

Proficency in both oral an written English are a must, another language is a plus

Candidates will be expected NOT to share their findings with the press”

then again, i always questioned the I in CIA…

Posted by rugby79 | Report as abusive

Want more freedom? Move to Russia. Snowden is already enjoying it. :)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

The article is full of half truths and misleading information and Mr Shafer knows this. Shame on him.
Plus, as we all know, the purpose of having an intelligence agency is to gather classified information. Our government leaders have access to it but there is no need for most of it to be made available to any one in any country for any reason. To even suggest such is downright stupid.

Posted by Ancientwarrior | Report as abusive

The author as a reporter thinks he has the right to know everything. Wrong. I for one am not upset that security people won’t tell me what they’re doing, they have kept us safe since 9/11/2001.

This whole hysteria about NSA and others “watching us” is worried about by people who are afraid they will be exposed for their child porn, being a closet homosexual, cheating on their spouses, stealing from work, drug use and other things that the NSA and CIA don’t give a care about. They can read my email/texts/mail, listen to my calls I don’t care because I’m not hiding anything.

Posted by yurgonetmyshet | Report as abusive

This is just a transparent ploy to prevent another Snowden through the use of fear.

This is a classic old school move by the intelligentsia. I personally believe that it should be illegal to force people to give up their right to free speech, it’s patently unconstitutional.

@Wolfmann: You do realize you sound like a genuine kook, right? Nah, republicans never do.

Posted by Rick_FromTexas | Report as abusive

From the outside, it is terrifying how much the US is morphing into a Stasi-Police State..soon your congress/senate will be a clone of that in Pyongyang..all clapping like seals when your Fuhrer takes the one daring to vote out of line…Sieg Heil!! Sieg Heil!

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

Clapper is guilty of congressional testimony perjury.
Don’t ask don’t tell – and if you are asked under oath lie your f ing ass off. WHAT is Clapper still doing as director?
It’s a corporate police state managed by filth in US congress, there can be no other sane conclusion.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

@Rick_FromTexas: Your response is all poli-babble. Until I read your post I thought your Governor was an intellectual outlier in the set of people named Rick_fromTexas. Now I’m going to have revisit that analysis ..

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

Soooooo what does this mean for Operation Mockingbird?

Posted by tjmc1378 | Report as abusive

Yeah, I can’t imagine why intelligence agencies would want to prevent the media from getting inside information. I mean, it’s not like the media isn’t responsible, or anything like that. It’s not like they do anything they can do sensationalize every stupid little tidbit of information they get. And they certainly wouldn’t sensationalize something like some delusional nut who’s a glorified computer repair guy, stealing information… and then doling little bits and pieces of that information out for months, under hysterically inaccurate headlines like: “Massive US Spy Program on US Citizens”… No, the media never does stuff like that. Their response to things is always very factual and measured. They also would never do something like broadcasting to everybody, that the most sought after terrorist in the world was having his sat phone monitored by the CIA, so that he immediately stopped using it, thereby making it next to impossible to track him, which potentially heled him launch a major attack on the US. Nope… That would never happen with the media. And it’s not like the media is comprised mainly of spoiled nuts that grew up in the suburbs, who had mommy and daddy pay for their college… so they have a completely irrational and highly liberal attitude towards everything. The media doesn’t ever participate in destructive, anarchist-like behavior, trying to take down anybody they deem to be ‘the man’. No, that never happens.

Yes, all intel agencies should start disclosing everything to the media immediately… Only good things could come from that.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Sigh. There are some secrets worth keeping. The way you keep them is to not tell anyone else. But we are also a democracy (well, republic), where our citizens are able to make up their own minds about the debates surrounding security and secrecy. It’s a difficult balance.

But, our current President promised us an unprecedented level of transparency that doesn’t seem to be happening. That was probably a “campaign promise” on his part, but it is still reasonable to expect more than we have had in the past. Ultimately, I don’t think history will be kind to Obama. Or, for that matter, to any of the past three or four presidents.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

These people are only getting started.

From the President to the Supreme Court, it’s clear as air where the whole political apparatus in this country is headed.

And anybody who fails to see it is blind.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

This will not get any better. Interestingly searching Clapper and resign produces a slough of politicians across the spectrum who have called for his resignation.

Wasn’t he going to step down in March or April?

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

“THE” most transparent presidency “EVER”; the great disruptor in all his glory.

Posted by dankosh | Report as abusive