WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has tightened its control over intelligence — including unclassified information — by setting limits on officials' interactions with the media.
A March 20 directive issued by the director of national intelligence states that only certain intelligence officials are authorized to talk to the media, and everyone else must report all intentional or unintentional contact with reporters. Violating this rule could result in an employee losing his or her security clearance and job.
It is the latest Obama administration effort to try to limit interactions between reporters and government officials. And it was issued on the same day as a directive for protecting intelligence agency whistleblowers.
A spokesman for the director of national intelligence said the new directive is nearly two years in the making and is the Obama administration's alternative to a proposed 2012 law that would have clamped down on national security leaks to reporters.
Government officials are already prohibited by law from disclosing classified information. Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden, for instance, has been charged with three offenses in the U.S for disclosing classified details about the government's post-9/11 surveillance programs. Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of charges under the Espionage Act.
The new directive, however, is broader and applies to unclassified information, as well.
"The new directive is far more sweeping than any previous policy, since it applies to basically everything having to do with intelligence," said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood first reported the new media policy in a blog post Monday. "By trying to regulate reporters' ability to independently gather unclassified information, the directive will undermine the credibility of all intelligence-related news."
The timing of the two directives suggests that the Obama administration is telling intelligence agency employees that if they're concerned about something and are considering taking those concerns to a reporter, they should use the official procedures for whistleblowers instead, Aftergood said.
After a series of high-profile disclosures in 2012 — including details about U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran and an al-Qaida plot to place an explosive device aboard a U.S.-bound airliner — Congress considered passing a new law to stem national security leaks. Support for the law came as Republicans accused the administration of intentionally disclosing classified information in an election year.
The bill would have restricted the number of employees in the intelligence community authorized to talk to reporters and prohibit current and former intelligence officials from doing contract work with the news media.
Many believed that the law would impose a chilling effect on the media. In an attempt to work with Congress, director of national intelligence James Clapper said he would develop guidelines, Clapper's spokesman Shawn Turner said. The May 20 directive is the result, and it codifies what has long been the practice in many intelligence agencies, he said.
Other rules were issued in 2012 to stop unauthorized leaks of classified information, including a requirement that lie detector tests for intelligence agency employees start to include a question about unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
The Obama administration has pursued an unprecedented number of prosecutions of government sources and seizures of journalists' records.
Earlier this year, Clapper said that the reporters who published classified documents leaked by Snowden are Snowden's "accomplices."
These "accomplices" Clapper referenced during a January Senate hearing, referred to "anyone who is assisting Edward Snowden to further threaten our national security through the unauthorized disclosure of stolen documents related to lawful foreign intelligence collection programs," Turner said at the time.