The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and 37 media organizations are calling on Congress to reject the CIA’s proposed expansion of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which would allow the intelligence community to indefinitely criminalize the disclosure of the identities of undercover intelligence officers and agents. It would do so even when that information is newsworthy, in the public interest, and where disclosure would not pose a risk of harm to the officer or agent.
In a letter sent to members of the House of Representatives and Senate on Aug. 8, the media coalition asserts that the expansion would criminalize “the publication of truthful information about government activities,” including by journalists, and that if the expansion is passed, such anonymity could “shield the intelligence agencies from public accountability,” which would increase the risk that intelligence officers “cross ethical lines.”
While journalists will refrain from identifying an officer or agent by name if it puts the individuals or their families in danger, there are cases in which news organizations will decide to use the name of an unacknowledged officer or agent because the identity is well known, the risk is low, and the identity itself is newsworthy. Threats of prosecution or actual prosecutions under this expansion of the IIPA could chill journalists from reporting this information, which is necessary for public oversight. Such oversight is particularly important in cases involving intelligence and foreign affairs, where undue secrecy can hide government wrongdoing.
When Congress passed the IIPA in 1982, the law criminalized disclosures of names in instances where it would put United States covert agents in physical danger because of their overseas service or activity. Now, the CIA wants to expand the definition of a covert agent under the IIPA by removing the overseas requirement so that intelligence agencies would, as the letter explains, be able to “criminalize the disclosure of the identity of any officer, employee, informant or agent in perpetuity” by keeping that identity classified.
The original IIPA took six years of deliberation before it passed. The expansion, the letter notes, has been “rushed through Congress with no meaningful debate,” as it went from introduction to passage in about two months. The House of Representatives passed its intelligence authorization bill on July 17, which included this expansion of the IIPA. The Senate passed its intelligence authorization package, also with this expansion, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act on June 27. It is unclear how or when Congress will reconcile the various pieces of legislation. The letter asks that members either strip this provision when Congress takes it up again, or, barring that, that members support fixes down the road.
On July 9, the Reporters Committee also joined 28 open government and press freedom organizations in signing on to a letter, led by Open the Government, calling on Congress to remove the provision.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.