Reporters question Pentagon's harsher approach to national security leaks

Emily Miller | Newsgathering | News | July 23, 2012

The Pentagon Press Association is awaiting a response to a letter submitted to the Pentagon outlining journalists' concerns over the U.S. Department of Defense's new policy for countering national security leaks.

The organization submitted a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, seeking clarification on the statement the Pentagon released last week instilling new procedures for handling leaks, including officials being more vigilant monitoring the media.

"We all believe the July 19 statement is open to varying interpretations by Defense Department officials and to potential abuse," the letter stated. "We are asking you to clarify in writing what is meant by 'monitor all major, national level reporting.'”

The journalists also asked the Pentagon to disclose what authority it has to monitor the media, specifically whether it is authorized to monitor phone conversations, e-mail messages or press workspaces without reporters' knowledge, and without probable cause or a court's authority.

"What was unclear is how the Pentagon intends to monitor the media," Pentagon Press Association Vice President Kevin Baron said in an interview. "We understand their concerns about leaks, but [the association] is worried about the Pentagon's role in monitoring reporters as well as employees." Baron is a national security staff writer for the National Journal.

The department announced the changes the same day as a closed House Armed Services Committee hearing about disclosures of national security information and its impact on military operations. The Pentagon's move follows the intelligence community's announcement last month that it would also implement stricter measures against leakers. Recently published articles on cyber warfare, drone strikes and other classified information leaked to the press prompted Congressional outrage over the unauthorized disclosures.

“The unauthorized disclosure of classified information jeopardizes national security and is a violation of department regulation, policy, and, in certain cases, a criminal act that should be prosecuted,” the Pentagon's press secretary George Little said in the statement announcing the changes. “The new actions directed by Secretary Panetta today, in addition to the many steps taken by department personnel in recent months, are aimed at ensuring that the department upholds the important requirement to safeguard America’s national security secrets.”

According to Little, who is also the acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the department will be no longer be following its current “bottom up” system, which requires that individuals report potential violations up the chain of command.

“To ensure greater accountability and tracking of unauthorized disclosures, Secretary Panetta is directing a new “top down” approach as well,” Little said. “The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, will monitor all major, national level media reporting for unauthorized disclosures of defense department classified information. The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence will ensure that the appropriate component of the department has been tasked with investigating leaks and initiates the process for appropriate referrals to the Department of Justice.”

According to Little, Secretary Panetta noted that only the assistant secretary for public affairs may give information to the media, and that Congress must be notified of unauthorized disclosures.

Little said additional recent reforms include improving the training on how classified information is handled and the security on classified computer networks. He said the department is also implementing President Obama’s Executive Order establishing an Insider Threat Task Force, and mandating the use of a department wide incident report system to track unauthorized disclosures.

Earlier this month, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced a bill meant to deter individuals from releasing information about U.S. covert affairs to the public.The Deterring Public Disclosure of Covert Actions Act of 2012 would invalidate the security clearance of individuals who publicly disclose classified information without "authorization from an original classification authority."

“There has been no shortage of news reports lately regarding covert and classified actions,” Sen. Burr said in a July 10 press release. “As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I am privy to sensitive information about our national security that I have both a moral and a legal obligation to keep secret. Recently, however, it seems as though some individuals with similar access to information have chosen to pursue their own personal agenda over the interest of the American people. This must be stopped.”

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· News: Congressional committee holds hearing on national security leak prevention and punishment

· News: New intelligence rules emphasize lie detectors, more investigators in effort to limit leaks to news media