American Spooks Terrified

April 25, 2014–The spy chieftains who run U.S. intelligence are terrified. Not of the North Koreans, or Syrians, or Chinese. Not at the old “Axis of Evil.” Not even with Vladimir Putin’s suddenly muscular diplomacy in the Ukraine. No, the spy mavens are terrified of their own spooks–and of what they might say. I commented here earlier (“U.S. Intelligence Turned Inside Out,” February 5, 2014) at how scary it is that General James Clapper and other American spy chiefs seemingly regard whistleblowers, more than foreign enemies, as principal threats to United States national security. Their concern has now assumed concrete form, far beyond simply asserting before Congress that there may be a problem with leaks.

On March 20 Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, promulgated an order to affect everyone who works for any of our spy agencies. Called Intelligence Community Directive 119, the order says its purpose is “to ensure a consistent approach for addressing media engagement . . . and to mitigate the risks of unauthorized disclosures of intelligence related matters.” To achieve these goals Directive 119 orders that no one who works for U.S. intelligence is to have any contact with the media other than designated officials.

Before we go any farther I want to make a point that deserves to be repeated from every rooftop: General Clapper and his minions are substituting their own interests, narrow and parochial, for the national interest. They are either confused about what endangers national security, or they seek to use the public’s deference to that concept to avoid the very conversation America needs to be having right now.

To wit, Directive 119 designates agency directors, their deputies, their PR spin doctors, and those individuals asked by a director to do so as the only persons who can be in contact with the media. In other words, all information is to be authorized information–all vanilla, nothing controversial. Even better, not only will intelligence officers have to obtain advance permission to be in touch with media, they are also required to report casual contacts. And approval of a contact by the higher-ups, under Directive 119 does not imply the inclusion of any follow-up conversation.

This is a formula that affords spy chieftains complete ability to manipulate: they approve the medium, they approve the message, and if later on they decide a mistake was made they can retroactively construe a contact as unauthorized. Those ruled guilty of infractions under the directive can be fired or have their security clearances revoked, which pretty much amounts to the same thing, and then be referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Moreover Directive 119 defines “media” so widely that the spooks can construe almost anyone as the enemy– “media is any person, organization or entity” that engages in informing the public “in any form,” and–I love this one–is “otherwise engaged in the collection, production, or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security.” If you and I discuss on our I-phones U.S. trade policy in certain areas (which are now considered matters of national security) we are “media.”

This is as chilling as imaginable. Intelligence officers abandon their First Amendment rights as a condition of employment–illegal on the face of it. And the aim at whistleblowers is plainly revealed in Paragraph 8 of the directive, which goes out of its way to specify that employees have avenues (other than going to the media) to report unlawful, abusive, fraudulent, or wasteful activities. To add to the message DNI Clapper devotes an entire order, Directive 120 (which has not been made public), to layering on details of those avenues. Of course, the current situation is that action through channels is often sterile because agency officials have vested interests in their programs. A number of CIA and NSA whistleblowers have been prosecuted for reporting waste, fraud, and abuse; the very reason Edward Snowden chose to go to the media. I predict that Directive 119 will have a disastrous effect on intelligence agency morale.

Director Clapper has a tin ear. When Congress asked about NSA dragnet eavesdropping he lied about it. (Congress, by the way, is an “entity” that engages in the collection and dissemination of information on national security.) Later he reflected that if he’d just come clean there wouldn’t have been a problem. President Obama had to order Clapper to declassify and make public legal documents in support of the NSA’s version of the reality. Now, with public confidence in U.S. intelligence at a nadir–because of agencies’ actions, not the media’s reporting of them–Clapper goes after his own employees. The spooks cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that national security–the very existence of their agencies–is threatened by their actions and not by the media’s reporting. They prefer to think that shooting the messenger eliminates the problem. What they should be doing is building public confidence with openness and transparency. Instead we get Directive 119. I have the paperback edition of The Family Jewels  coming out shortly. In it I propose a solution for this mess. Take a look at it.

U.S. Intelligence Turned Inside Out


February 5, 2014– Is all this really happening? Maybe I should pinch my arm and try to wake up. But it’s not a dream–it’s a nightmare. United States foreign intelligence turning on Americans. This NSA eavesdropping scandal has created such distortions that, at some point, you begin to wonder whether the entire system is compromised. Government responses to the scandal have gone so over the top that one suspects the foundations of the intelligence community may be cracking.

Let’s begin with the fundamental mission. As officials have reiterated ad infinitum since the Snowden revelations began, the purpose of U.S. intelligence is to discover and track foreign enemies. All the powers the NSA, CIA, and other agencies exercise are supposed to be aimed at that goal. The agencies operate in secrecy, on the dark side. But there moments when, for a brief time, they come into focus. The most important of these is the annual “threat assessment” hearings. Every year around this time the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the agency chiefs appear before the congressional intelligence committees to give the public a glimpse of their world view. The spy chiefs talk to the legislators but at the same time speak to the American people. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) are fora in which our agency bosses expounded on the Soviet threat, in the day; efforts to develop ballistic missiles around the world, nuclear proliferation, including the misguided and mistaken claims for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; drug cartels and international crime syndicates, whatever the issues that have their hair on fire. Since 9/11 our intelligence chiefs have consistently represented the top threat as terrorism. Only last year did it drop to second place, with the threat of cyberwar given the pride of place. Now, suddenly, the NSA eavesdropping scandal has changed that.

Last week the DNI, General James R. Clapper, and his assembled brass, presented their annual threat assessment to the Senate committee. They did the same at the HPSCI yesterday. The two appearances cast a pall on the American intelligence enterprise. Our so-called experts now believe the leading threat is not foreign at all.

General Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee that a leading threat to the United States comes from whistleblowers. (Cue Edward Snowden.) Let’s parse that for a moment: Whistleblowers are employees of U.S. intelligence who become so concerned about the U.S. intelligence programs they see around them that they decide to destroy their careers by leaking to the public the abuses which exercise them. How to cope with that threat? You clamp down on U.S. intelligence. The snake eats its own tail. This is more than a security measure. The NSA, CIA and other agencies depend on smart analysts and operators, willing to go out on a limb to make sense of the welter of obscure and often contradictory information out there, and argue theses which bosses might think fanciful. Nothing could be better calculated to destroy the morale of the intelligence community than to represent its own officers, individually and collectively, as the main enemy.

I’ve written here repeatedly, as have others, on the chilling effect of eavesdropping on the public. Consider how chilling it must be for intelligence officers to be told they are a threat too.

There it is. Just to keep the ball in view, Clapper’s biggest threat this year remains cyberwar. But terrorism–the stated rationale for all that intrusive NSA eavesdropping–has fallen to fourth. Whistleblowers are a bigger threat to American security than terrorists. Of course, the reason whistleblowers pose a threat is the impact their disclosures may have on the powers of the intelligence community. Director Clapper and his minions are substituting the private, parochial interests of their agencies for the national security of the United States.

On the theme of flimsy congressional oversight, featured here several times, we can add that Senator Dianne Feinstein sat still for all this in her Senate committee. At HPSCI yesterday, Representative Mike Rogers did Feinstein one better. Clapper hardly needed to advance his dubious threat analysis. Rogers reached past him, trying to lead FBI director James B. Comey into an assertion that journalists who report the abuses revealed by whistleblowers are “fencing” stolen goods. What congressional oversight is even possible in this climate?

Rogers has, without evidence, accused Snowden repeatedly of being a Russian or Chinese spy, and last fall at a media gabfest with former spook Michael V. Hayden the two bantered about their desire to throttle the leaker. Edward Snowden got the message. Recently he told a German interviewer, in all seriousness, that he could not return to the United States because people want to kill him.

All this gives new meaning to aphorisms–always presented as an error–about shooting the messenger. Do not lose sight of the fact–and it is a fact–that the problem resides in the substance of U.S. intelligence programs, not in what Edward Snowden or anyone else says about them. That intrusive eavesdropping is revealed in the NSA’s own documents. Not only can the evidence not be disputed, it has been further confirmed in the additional documentation the U.S. government has declassified in the course of this controversy.