EVERY DAY IN Washington, government officials — at the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, Congress or the CIA, to name a few — talk to journalists about information that is considered sensitive. The officials are not quoted by name, but the information is provided for the reporter’s understanding and it often makes its way into the public realm.
These officials are attempting to help the American people sort out complex policies. Often they have strong views, as boosters or dissidents of the policies. This vast public square is a robust and enduring feature of our democracy.
Now, spurred by recent national security leaks, the Senate intelligence committee has voted 14 to 1 to outlaw many of such background briefings. An amendment to the 2013 intelligence authorization bill would prohibit anyone but the director, deputy director or public affairs representative of an intelligence agency from providing “background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities” to the media. Those at the top could go on talking, while lower-level experts or anyone who might have contrary views would be blocked.
The provision is crude and dangerous. For example, at the end of April, intelligence officials spoke to reporters about their assessment of al-Qaeda one year after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The briefing included important information about the bin Laden network and to what extent it might be a threat in the future. This is of extreme public interest. Under the Senate bill, the briefing might well have been prohibited.
Other provisions in the bill are also flawed. One would extend the reach of pre-publication review by the intelligence community to include not only manuscripts but also “anticipated oral comments.” Yet another would ban government employees or contractors with security clearances from entering into contracts with “the media” to provide “analysis or commentary” on intelligence matters. Former officials who left within the previous year would also be silenced, as would members of advisory boards to the intelligence community.
The amendment is poorly drafted. It fails to define “the media.” Does it include book publishing or social media? Would a 140-character tweet violate the law? It sweepingly prohibits disclosure of “intelligence activities” without distinguishing among different levels of classification that are used every day by the 4.8 million people authorized to handle such material.
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said in a news release that “the culture of leaks has to change.” Surely Congress can do better. Serious reform would deal not only with protecting secret information but also repair a dysfunctional system that wildly overclassifies documents which would enrich the public debate. This hastily conceived legislation would choke off the daily give-and-take that is the lifeblood of a democratic society without making the nation in any way more secure.