America’s Terrified Spooks (2)

May 9, 2014–So here we are again, back at the Family Jewels crisis. In the last episode (“American Spooks Terrified,” April 25, 2014) we had our Fearful Leader, General James Clapper, issuing orders that require intelligence community personnel to get top bosses’ approval before any contact with the media, and to report contacts, even inadvertent ones, up the chain of command. I remarked on this as confirming the concerns Clapper and other intelligence directors expressed at threat assessment hearings earlier this year that their own employees rank as a national security threat. Today we have additional evidence, if any were needed, of Fearful Leader’s secrecy hysteria. If I were an intelligence agency employee I would be very worried.

The latest blow to civility, rationality, even First Amendment rights, comes in the form of Office of Director of National Intelligence Instruction 80.04, issued on April 8. The order requires ODNI personnel to obtain prior approval for “all official and non-official information intended for public release.” The Clapper directive describes this as “pre-publication review.” His directive complements the March order, which covered all intelligence officers. The goal is to prevent unauthorized disclosures. Note, however, that it does not apply to secret documents but to the very vague category information. That means, in effect, every item of information, secret or not, and every means of transmission of information–indeed the order itself lists “forums, panels, round tables, and question and answer sessions.”

Chilling? You bet. As with the March directive on media contacts the effect will be to obtain–as the security types no doubt think of it–“information dominance.” Ensure that everything out there is on-message from ODNI’s standpoint. Enforceable? Probably not. The attempt to regulate every single contact, and every means of exchange, between the public and an agency officer is bound to lead to a host of problems, bureaucratic, legal, and practical.

The CIA at least has a mechanism for this, something called the Publications Review Board. To enforce the Clapper rules the ODNI will need a similar entity. More to the point, this is not a value-neutral procedure. The people who run this thing will have irresistible temptations to demand and enforce a certain ideological conformity. In The Family Jewels there is a chapter which shows at considerable length how the CIA’s board is compromised in exactly this way.

It is an index of both the intelligence community’s hysteria and the intellectual bankruptcy of this “review” process that the CIA, which published an interview with the chairman of its Publications Review Board last month–no doubt with the criticisms of Family Jewels in mind–chose not even to endow this person with a name. –The Intelligence Identities Protection Act gives the CIA the authority to shield the identity of a covert officer on active assignment or recently returned. It has no such authority to withhold the identity of an administrative officer at headquarters, acting in an official capacity, in fact as part of a spin doctor operation. You can see how broken this mechanism has become.

The CIA directive governing pre-publication review at least has the merit of some specificity regarding what is covered. Clapper’s order for “information” can pertain to anything–ideas can require ODNI review because they can embody information. Plus the review process–ODNI or CIA–can get in the way of legitimate complaint procedures. The CIA directive has language discussing whistleblower documents created to be given to the Inspector General or the congressional oversight committees. The order says these are personal when first created (and safe from review) but at some point become subject to PRB action. Thus terrain on which to fight over the status of whistleblowers’ complaints is written right into the regulations. Edward Snowden’s material would not have survived “publication” review.

In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, General Clapper’s directive potentially punishes/criminalizes the time-honored Washington practice of obtaining policy action by leaking. The order requires ODNI officers to cite public information which proves that what they want to say is not secret–and it prohibits them from citing leaks as such sources. Think about that for a minute. In the intelligence manipulation that preceded the Bush invasion of Iraq, there was a moment in the scare-mongering when administration officials leaked some aluminum tubes information and then the vice-president, the deputy secretary of defense, and the national security adviser all used identical language about “mushroom clouds” to refer to the leaked data. General Clapper’s directive, not so conveniently for government, would make that kind of maneuver impossible.

Every review of government secrecy in living memory concludes that we classify too much information. By making everything secret, nothing becomes secret. The ODNI directive creates precisely that kind of situation. We should be moving in the direction of reducing secrecy, not increasing the problem. General Clapper wants to create a secrecy overload.

The legal and constitutional problems with this kind of secrecy have been discussed in this space before. I’ll not revisit them, except to quote the anonymous CIA chairman’s statement: “We are aware that people have first amendment rights.” That’s a good thing. Unfortunately the reality of what the spooks are doing indicates they either don’t know or don’t care.

 

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