National security journalists say it’s only getting harder to report on intelligence agencies

Anti-Leaks directives formalize post-Snowden secrecy

This spring, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued new policies requiring that all public writings and remarks—even by former employees—be checked beforehand for sensitive information, and circumscribing how employees can talk about classified material that’s already out in the public sphere.

Long-time intelligence reporters say it’s too soon to say whether the directives—in effect since April, and first reported earlier this month—are specifically causing sources to clam up. But the policies contribute to a climate where government sources are increasingly twitchy about talking with reporters, even on unclassified matters. In March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) expressly forbid unauthorized contact with the media for all current employees of the 17 government spy agencies it oversees.

“Clearly this is part of the post-Snowden scramble to try to control the message and control information,” said Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times national security reporter and author of a recent book on the CIA. It’s been almost a year since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began leaking documents on government surveillance, Mazzetti said, “and they’re still wrestling with this.”

Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, argues that the ODNI’s new policies are a step up in government control, in that they extend beyond only regulating classified information to include “sensitive” matters. The ODNI says that the new directives just reflect a consolidation of existing practices, and they’re not as inflexible as they may seem on paper. “It is understood that there are times that former employees may receive calls for comment from the media, and there simply is not time to follow the pre-publication review process,” the ODNI wrote in a statement after the policies came to light.

“You rely on people who get out of government to give a more candid assessment of what’s going on inside it,” said Mazzetti. “We’ll have to see how it’s enforced and whether people listen to it. There will be people who will bristle at this attempt to control what they can say.”

At least so far, Jeff Stein, who covers intelligence matters for Newsweek, said that “during meetings with intelligence sources last week the order was having no apparent effect whatsoever.”

But Mazzetti noted that already, “leak investigations and revelations about surveillance capabilities are making people think twice about having any type of communication with reporters. These directives can’t help.”

Jonathan Landay, a reporter for McClatchy, has been covering the government’s “Insider Threat Program,” an aggressive internal anti-leak effort to monitor employees for signs that they might be the next Manning or Snowden. He said that these directives are also of a piece with a concerted public relations effort by the government to control the narrative on national security issues.

“It was always good for us to go to people in government to get background, implications, the context of certain policies or events, and how they are seen within the government,” said Landay. “All of that is being chilled with the objective of having the intelligence community speak with one authorized, vetted voice. You’re only going to get one line, and that’s the official line. That’s a crying shame. There are always different perspectives within the government.”

The Obama administration is known for aggressively managing its image, from haranguing members of the White House press corps over tweets to producing its own video campaigns and photographs. Last fall the Committee to Protect Journalists put out a report on the perceived stifling effect of such efforts at message control in the security sphere.

What can reporters do when stonewalled by public affairs officers or when trying to coax information out of a skittish source? Don’t forget the classic methods of investigative journalism, said Landay, even if they’re getting harder in the face of increased government monitoring. “You’ve got to start going to people’s houses on weekends and at night. You have to be prepared to leave your iPhone at home, to use burners, to know where payphones are. There is nothing more secure, nothing more reliable than a face-to-face meeting.”

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Cora Currier is a freelance journalist focusing on national security. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at ProPublica and on the editorial staff of The New Yorker Tags: , ,