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.