On the Senate floor this week Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., praised new statutory protections for intelligence agency whistleblowers, but expressed concerns with a new policy created by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that punishes intelligence agency employees for talking to the press.
Wyden worked with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to include the new whistleblower protections in a provision in the 2014 Intelligence Authorization bill, which passed unanimously Wednesday evening, but Wyden’s success with the bill is overshadowed by his frustrations with a new policy from the DNI.
According to the new policy, intelligence agency professionals who discuss even unclassified topics with the media could face disciplinary consequences. One of Wyden’s biggest concerns with the policy is an “extraordinarily broad” definition of the term “media.” It could be interpreted to include any person who uses social media or writes a non-professional blog, Wyden said.
“It goes well beyond professional news gatherers to include anyone who uses the Internet to disseminate any information at all relating to national security topics,” Wyden said in a speech on the Senate floor. “So if you’re an employee of an intelligence agency and you have a family member who likes to post or re-tweet articles about national security, suddenly a conversation with that family member about important issues like NSA’s surveillance or the war in Afghanistan could lead to you getting punished for having unauthorized contact with the media.”
Wyden had placed a hold on the Intelligence Authorization Act in 2012 because of a similar anti-leak provision. That portion was eventually removed from the bill.
Sophia Cope, the Newspaper Association of America’s director of government affairs and legislative counsel, wrote about problems she sees with the policy in an NAA article in April. She said the government’s unclassified intelligence activities and judgments are precisely the types of information that the public has a right to know.
“This policy will muzzle the subject-matter experts who are often reporters’ best sources,” Cope wrote. “Instead of providing helpful background information to better explain an issue or put it into context, these experts will either be denied authorization to speak to the media, or they will not bother obtaining an official designation or reporting contacts with the media after the fact.”
She also called the policy a disappointing irony after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just stated before the Senate Intelligence Committee in January that the intelligence community “must lean in the direction of transparency, wherever and whenever we can.”
In the article, Cope expressed doubts that journalists who cover national security and foreign affairs will have the access they need to bring useful information to the public.
“In the spirit of advancing the public’s right to know, we hope that Director Clapper will rethink how the intelligence community can ‘lean in the direction of transparency,’” she wrote.
Wyden expressed similar concerns when he opposed the 2012 provision.
“I think Congress should be extremely skeptical of any anti-leaks bills that threaten to encroach upon the freedom of the press, or that would reduce access to information that the public has a write to know,” Wyden said in November 2012, sentiments he echoed on the Senate floor in his speech this week.