Intel chief bars spies from talking to press

The Obama administration has issued a new directive warning most intelligence agency workers that they are forbidden from talking to the press without permission.

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The directive was revealed Monday by the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, and comes months after documents leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden rattled the intelligence community.

The directive issued by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March says employees who don’t follow the order could have their security clearances revoked, lose their jobs or face criminal prosecution. The order does not distinguish between classified and unclassified intelligence matters.

The order said the rules are designed to “mitigate risks of unauthorized disclosure of intelligence-related matters that may result from such contacts” and ensure that policies are “consistent” across the range of the country’s spy agencies.

Steven Aftergood, the head of the Project on Government Secrecy, said the directive appeared overly broad.

“So under most circumstances, an intelligence community employee is at liberty to discuss unclassified ‘intelligence-related information’ with his or her next-door neighbor,” he wrote in a blog post. “But if the neighbor happened to be a member of the media, then the contact would be prohibited altogether without prior authorization.”

While “appropriate” interaction with the media “is encouraged,” the directive warns against unauthorized leaks.

In most cases, only the top two figures and a spokesman at an agency are authorized to discuss intelligence-related issues with the press. Anyone else must get authorization from the public affairs office, and must also report “unplanned or unintentional” discussions about intelligence issues.

People working on books, television shows, movies and similar works need to consult with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and all intelligence agency employees need to undergo annual “awareness training” for dealing with the press.

At the same time, the directive declares that the intelligence community “has multiple avenues for its employees to report activities perceived to be unlawful” or wasteful.  

The policy is similar to a 2012 proposal out of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was dropped after critics worried that it would effectively ban background briefings, which can be crucial for explaining matters to journalists. 

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Clapper “is trying to do by decree what he couldn't secure through our elected representatives.”

“These days, the only reliable check on the intelligence agencies is aggressive national security reporting,” he added in the statement. “This slams the door on that essential journalism.”

Defenders of the NSA have criticized Snowden for going to the press with his documents instead of up the chain of command. If he had objections to the NSA's programs, they said, he should have made more of an effort to resolve it in-house.

In the wake of the revelations, a White House working group suggested tightening control on sensitive documents and spy agents to prevent future leaks, among a slew of other reforms.

This story was updated at 5:44 p.m.