Former CIA, NSA employees sue agencies over alleged censorship

Five former federal employees sued the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) on Tuesday, saying the agencies censored them through a system that forbids government workers from discussing topics related to their employment without first receiving approval.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the former employees.

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At least 17 federal agencies have a “prepublication review” policy that requires military personnel and intelligence employees to secure approval before discussing or writing about topics related to their tenure. The restrictions affect writings ranging from manuscripts and opinion pieces to academic engagements.

“Defendants’ prepublication review regimes violate the First Amendment because they invest executive officers with sweeping discretion to suppress speech and fail to include procedural safeguards designed to avoid the dangers of a censorship system,” the lawsuit says.

Both the CIA and NSA impose such restrictions for “any legitimate government interest,” regardless of an employee's security clearance, and the agencies are not required to explain or justify their requested redactions or complete the review in a timely manner, according to the lawsuit, which also names the Defense Department and other agencies.

Writers often must redact unclassified information that they learned after leaving their jobs, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs claim the review process is politicized, with “favored officials” often given more lenient reviews and fast-tracked to approval.

The CIA and NSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“The problem with the system is that the prepublication process is haphazard and opaque, and people don’t understand it,” Mark Fallon, a former employee of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and a plaintiff in the case, told The Washington Post. “The overburdensome requirements eliminate people, like me, who have a tremendous body of work with government service.”

Fallon told the Post he was forced to wait eight months for a decision on his book, “Unjustifiable Means,” and the requested redactions related primarily to information that would have embarrassed NCIS.