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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