The Complex

Spies Say They're Confused and Outraged by Restrictions on Talking to Journalists

A controversial and, by many accounts, baffling government policy meant to prevent disclosure of classified information has some current and former intelligence agency employees utterly confused and crying foul. Contrary to official statements that the policy is neither new nor overly restrictive, many spooks interpret it as a blanket prohibition meant to keep them from talking to journalists or speaking publicly about national security issues and controversies.

At issue is an instruction released earlier this month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) about the so-called pre-publication review process. Current and former intelligence agency employees must submit any materials they intend to publish for vetting to prevent the release of classified information. Confusion over the policy was widespread enough that the ODNI had to issue a clarification, which, based on interviews with seven current and former intelligence officials, clarified little.

Those affected by the policy say that they're confused about what kinds of public statements need to be cleared. Are short blog posts or Tweets considered as sensitive as long op-eds and articles, for example? And they're unsure whether any interaction with journalists is now forbidden.

One former intelligence official who now works in the private sector said he declined five recent requests to discuss national security issues on television news shows because he was afraid of having his security clearance revoked or being fined for breaking the rules. Ironically, the former official said, he only learned about new restrictions on talking to the press from Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, when he discussed it with comedian John Oliver for his new HBO talk show.

"It's very confusing; and I feel like this is punishing people who served honorably in government," said the former official, who, like everyone interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity to avoid possibly running afoul of the policy. "I would ask permission from my former agency if I planned to write something publicly because that's the agreement I signed. But I didn't sign an agreement not to have lunch with a reporter or talk to him."

Although the ODNI stressed that it was merely reiterating years-old policy, several sources said the reminder was a direct response to the Edward Snowden scandal intended to block others from discussing even benign or unclassified matters with reporters.

"Clearly we're reacting here to the Snowden leaks," one former intelligence official said. "Some people believe this is an overreaction and it was very badly drawn."

"Outrageous," is how another former intelligence official put it. "Everybody's upset at Snowden, I get that. But this isn't going to stop the next Snowden."

The policy could actually boomerang on the intelligence agencies and ultimately be more harmful than helpful. Some former officials said that they're now less likely to let journalists quote them by name, even for articles that might afford an opportunity to defend controversial government policies and stand up for their former employers. In a year when the NSA, in particular, has taken fire from even some of its stalwart allies on Capitol Hill, the intelligence agencies need all the public bolstering they can get, former officials said.

The sources believe they are being punished for Snowden's massive, unauthorized leak of classified information -- something they all consider a crime. As long as no classified information is revealed, it's their right to speak publicly about intelligence issues on panels, in the media, or before a classroom, they argue. And many of them make their living doing so.

"There's a large intelligence-industrial complex out there," said another former intelligence official. "If you're going to restrict their constitutional rights and hurt their business, you'd better be prepared for a lawsuit. What are you going to do, shut down Raytheon or Lockheed Martin?"

Furthermore, the "new" policy may be old, they said, but it's an admonition to keep quiet about every aspect of their former lives.

"It's meant to silence us," one former official said.

None objected to submitting op-eds, articles, speeches and books for a pre-publication review. But in the daily news cycle, there's no time for permission slips, they said.

"The issue that the ODNI doesn't understand is, if a reporter calls me for a comment, he doesn't have three days to wait for me to get permission to talk to him," one former official said. Historically, ex-spooks asked to speak extemporaneously on TV or for a quick comment to a news reporter were obliged to use their judgment and not disclose classified information.

The ODNI's clarification notes that it's "understood" there are times when some former employees might have to respond quickly to a media request without getting prior approval, but it doesn't make clear what they should do in such a case -- file a report afterward or call the ODNI on the way to an interview? In any case, the message seems not to be getting across.

The ODNI defends its instruction and has made several attempts to clarify it.

"This internal instruction imposes no requirements beyond those that the Non-Disclosure Agreement imposes on ODNI employees," spokesman Jeffrey Anchukaitis said, referring to a standard agreement not to reveal classified information. "It does state pre-pub[lication] guidance that was, while previously covered by the policy, not included explicitly in the instructions. It is not, however, a new policy."

Several sources said such clarifications only further muddled the message. Many also wonder which rules apply to ODNI employees versus other employees-- past and present-- in the much larger intelligence community.

Former officials say they're particularly aggrieved because after a career in the spy business, they know what they can and can't discuss with people lacking security clearances. Some said they were particularly put out because the order came from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a man many of them have known and worked with for years and who himself had a brief career as an ex-official, from 2006 to 2007, when he worked as a government contractor.

Current officials are equally confused and frustrated. One, who works on energy issues, said he doesn't know if he can discuss even unclassified information with colleagues who have lower or even no security clearance.

The question of who exactly is a journalist these days complicates matters even more, many said. Several former officials are blogging, for example, on sites such as Lawfare and Just Security, two respected forums for debating and analyzing national security issues that are widely read by intelligence professionals inside and outside the government. Does that, or writing columns regularly, make them journalists?

Several sources cited Michael Hayden, the former director of the NSA and the CIA, as a prime example. Hayden writes a regular column for the Washington Times. Does that mean Hayden is now a journalist, some former officials asked? If so, are they prohibited from talking to him, too?

"I can tell you that General Hayden clears all written material through a review process, similar to other former directors," said a spokesperson for Hayden. Hayden is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a consulting firm run by ex-federal judge and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and largely staffed by former government officials.

For all the grousing by retired spooks, though, it doesn't appear that they're altering their behavior much. Since issuing the policy, "We have seen no change in the amount of pre-publication requests, which is not surprising given that the policy didn't change," the ODNI's Anchukaitis said. "A few former ODNI employees have contacted us -- having heard erroneously of a new policy -- to inquire about their responsibilities. We'd ask any other formers with questions or concerns to do likewise."

It's doubtful that many will. The former intelligence official who said he first learned of the policy by watching HBO said he's reluctant to call Clapper's office because he thinks it'll only invite more scrutiny. Another said that until he hears otherwise, he will continue to clear articles through his former agency, not the ODNI. And, he predicted, his colleagues will do the same.

"They're not going to confront Clapper about this, they're just going to ignore him," the former official said.

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National Security

Obama Says U.S. Will No Longer Be the World's Policeman

President Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point that the United States remains an "indispensable nation" that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America's standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he's more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he'd be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war.

Obama, speaking at the U.S. Military Academy's commencement ceremony today, said terrorism remains "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad" and stressed that the United States won't refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism fund conceived to help the United States train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own homegrown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad, and Niger.

Obama, considered by many of his critics to be a reluctant wartime president, also took pains to lower any expectation that the U.S. military should or would be America's primary tool for fixing whatever ails the world.

"The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership," Obama told the graduating cadets at West Point. "But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

The president's remarks came just one day after he announced a new plan for Afghanistan in which some 9,800 troops would remain in that country after 2014 to train the Afghan security forces and mount counterterror operations, but with all but a handful of security forces supporting the embassy withdrawing by the end of 2015.

Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday's speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly noncommittal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn't intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn't acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the United States would do to help.

"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers -- no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," Obama said of Syria. "As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision."

A senior administration official briefing reporters after the speech had few other details, putting the responsibility for authorizing such assistance on Congress' doorstep and hinting that it could be several more months before Syrian rebels see any new assistance. Asked if the White House had settled on a plan to assist Syrian rebels, the official hinted that it had not. 

"This is something we'll be discussing with Congress in the coming weeks and months," the official said.

Some of the details that did emerge during the speech also undercut some of the president's own arguments. Some of the money in the proposed new counterterrorism fund would help pay for humanitarian assistance in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, all of which have seen the spillover effects of the Syrian war in the form of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. That could reduce, perhaps substantially, the amount of money that would go towards training and equipping allied armed forces.

Typical of Obama's vision of the use of military forces to "build capacity" among partner nations is a plan underway since last year in which U.S. Special Operations troops are creating elite counterterrorism units in North and West Africa, including Libya, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. The program, first reported by the New York Times this week, uses the Army's Green Berets and the secretive Delta Force to help create indigenous forces capable of fighting militants in those countries such as those from Boko Haram, an Islamist group that kidnapped about 275 schoolgirls in a remote region of northern Nigeria.

"I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy -- drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold," Obama said, noting how such moves are a reflection of today's "principal threat," which comes from a decentralized al Qaeda in which the group's affiliates and other extremists pose the biggest threats in those countries.

"We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments."

Obama also committed, once again, to providing more transparency about the military operations he oversees, echoing comments he made more than a year ago at National Defense University in which he argued for more openness in terms of America's targeted killings of militants abroad. But little of that effort has come to pass.  

As Foreign Policy first reported in November, the expected migration of most drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department has been on hold for months and is still not expected to happen anytime soon. CIA operations fall under what's known as "Title 50" operations and are therefore covert; Defense Department drone operations are, for the most part, overt and therefore subject to more Congressional oversight.

Obama's reinvigorated efforts to have more operations overseas out in the open come as Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, threatened to hold up the judicial nomination of David Barron, who wrote a legal opinion in support of the Obama White House's killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. Barron was ultimately confirmed on a party-line 53-45.

Obama has also failed thus far to make significant headway in closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, an objective from his first days in office and reiterated during that speech last year.

Still, as criticism mounts of his foreign policy approach, Obama said he has every intention of shining as much sunlight on those operations as possible.

"I also believe we be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out -- whether it is drone strikes, or training partners," he said Wednesday. "I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts."

 

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