A massive policy to gag intelligence employees and even former employees in the United States intelligence community has been adopted in response to disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The policy represents a further expansion of a network of initiatives to enforce secrecy and control not only the unauthorized release of classified information but the free flow of any information whatsoever.
The measures should be seen for what they are: a part of a coordinated effort to limit public debate in what leaders like to claim is a democratic society. They are intended to ensure only the intelligence community’s official message is getting out to the public. Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) James Clapper and others in President Barack Obama’s administration are incensed by the effect that Snowden’s disclosures have had, and they are applying a clamp to every fissure and opening in government to ensure nothing they do not approve gets out.
On April 8, 2014, as reported by Secrecy News, ODNI personnel are no longer to use material from “known leaks” or “unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information.”
“The use of such information in a publication can confirm the validity of an unauthorized disclosure and cause further harm to national security,” according to the new pre-publication review policy. “ODNI personnel are not authorized to use anonymous sourcing.”
Personnel must also, “prior to participating in open discussion venues, such as forums, panels, roundtables and question and answer (Q&A) sessions,” obtain approval from the Public Affairs Office and, most outrageously:
…ODNI personnel expecting to engage in unstructured or free-form discussions about operations, business practices or information related to the ODNI, the IC or national security must prepare an outline of the topics to be discussed or the agenda to be followed and provide to the [Information Management Division] anticipated potential questions and ODNI responses…
This was signed just over two weeks after a policy prohibiting intelligence employees from talking to the media without authorization was formally adopted.
Anyone who violates these new policies to gag employees can be subject to “administrative action that may include revocation of security clearance” or being fired.
Simultaneously, these policies expand a process for “authorized leaks” or the dissemination of the US intelligence community’s official message by appointed spokespeople cleared to speak in lockstep with the policy and mission. They are under strict orders not to stray from the official script. That means the policies encourage routine obfuscations of the true nature of the national security state, such as what the public witnessed when media were falsely led to believe that 54 terrorism plots had been thwarted by a National Security Agency phone records collection program.
But, to truly understand the zeal driving this growth in the US government’s secrecy regime, one cannot begin with Snowden. One cannot begin with WikiLeaks either. One has to look at former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who was indicted under the Espionage Act.
As The Washington Post indicated on April 16, 2010, when the Obama administration began to wield this law as if it were an Official Secrets Act that could conveniently silence conscientious officials, “The indictment of a former US intelligence official accused of leaking secrets to the media marks an attempt by the Obama administration to disrupt a type of transaction that has persisted for decades in Washington, routinely triggering criminal referrals but rarely ending up in court.”
Drake reacted to the policy being expanded by Clapper, “The gag order sends and sets a really terrible unprecedented precedent.”
“What happens if this order is extended to NSA, CIA and all the other agencies & departments that fall under the purview of the ODNI?” he asked.
It is “clearly a mass gag prior restraint order imposed,” which employees will be “coerced” into obeying as a “condition” of their “past employment” and “affiliation” with ODNI. In abject violation of the First Amendment, it could be extended to “tens upon tens of thousands and beyond when you include military and contractors in terms of the larger intelligence community,” Drake added.
These new policies complement other harsh measures, which include an Insider Threat Program that McClatchy Newspapers reported equates “leaks” with “espionage” and encourages snitching and instructs employees to be on the lookout for individuals suffering from “narcissism” or “antisocial personality disorder.” It includes increased reliance on lie detector exams, which now include questions about leaks to the press.
It builds off restrictions already imposed in the aftermath of information published by WikiLeaks in 2010, such as the development of removable media policies to reduce risks of leaks and additional training to ensure employees recognize how to appropriately handle classified information.
Also, as Clapper told a Senate committee in February, it includes a system to “monitor user activity on all [intelligence community] classified computer systems to detect unusual behavior” and a “fully staffed analytic capability” to put a “human eye on the suspect activity.”
About the only policy the intelligence community lacks at the moment is a system for total surveillance of employees when they are in their own homes and not at work. Clapper intends to have this operational by September 2016.
What is needed, Clapper told the Senate, is “a system of continuous evaluation where, when someone is in the system and they’re cleared initially, we have a way of monitoring their behavior, both their electronic behavior on the job and as well as off the job, to see if there is a potential clearance issue.”
In some ways, the culture of enforced ignorance was already being imposed in government. The Pentagon blocked access to The Guardian last June to ensure employees did not inadvertently read “classified information.” Access to websites such as FoxNews.com, CNN.com, MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, etc, were all blocked on the Army’s unclassified network in Iraq when WikiLeaks released the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs and the US State Embassy cables.
US soldiers would get a “page warning them that they’re about to break the law.” Except, it is not against the law to read classified information published by a media organization. That was simply intended to scare soldiers from showing interest in what was being exposed so commanders did not have to explain any atrocity, which they did not want to confront both internally and externally.
This massive gag order policy caught the attention of Peter Van Buren, a former State Department employee, who the Department tried to have fired for blowing the whistle on fraud and waste in Iraq. They used pre-publication rules to limit when he could talk about his book, We Meant Well, even though the department had cleared the book for publication.
“After my first book, We Meant Well, the State Department stripped me of my security clearance, moved to fire me and referred my case for prosecution to the Department of Justice simply for linking on my blog to a Wikileaks cable. That was all way back in 2011,” Van Buren said. “Since then we’ve had Barrett Brown prosecuted for a web link to sensitive information, and now the ODNI directive. I didn’t know it then, but I was a warning shot,” he recalled.
“The ODNI directive turns the use of even publicly available documents into virtual crimes,” Van Buren reacted. “Employees– present and past– who cite ‘allegedly’ classified documents from Manning and Snowden now on the web—and visible from every internet cafe in the Middle East—face sanction.”
The ACLU defended Van Buren when he was being punished for his speech arguing, “The Supreme Court has long made clear that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern.” This gag policy clearly runs counter to freedom of expression, which the US State Department is so quick to preach about when China or Russia undermines this value in their countries.
Finally, what is important to recognize is that as this policy of secrecy broadens under a presidential administration, which has claimed to be the most transparent administration in history, it is not matched by an expansion in whistleblower protection policy for intelligence employees. And, although Obama has issued some executive orders encouraging a ramping up of declassification of information that should no longer be secret, there is nothing being done to address the record number of national security exemptions being claimed when media organizations and the public submit Freedom of Information Act requests.
This waspish and autocratic response to Snowden will not bring more security to government. It will breed further distrust among employees. It will promote a culture of suspicion, of people looking over their shoulder routinely and wondering if seemingly innocuous behavior is conduct of people who are “insider threats.” It will discourage good government officials from sharing their experiences with citizens because of the strict burdens imposed, and it will encourage the spread of government propaganda because contesting talking points intended to conceal the truth would mean risking one’s job or livelihood.
There are laws and regulations on the books for protecting classified information. Neither Chelsea Manning, Snowden, Drake nor anyone else diminished the force in which those laws and regulations can be applied to ensure “national security.” What ramped up, however, is this zealous attitude which trickles down from Obama to Clapper to the lower echelons of the US intelligence community and imposes rigid conformity to any agenda in the “war on terrorism.”
Anyone who questions is to be snuffed out and made an example for the good of the order, which is truly undemocratic.