Senate committee scraps anti-leaks measures from intelligence spending bill

December 21, 2012

The Senate Intelligence Committee has scrapped anti-leaks legislation that would have imposed sweeping new restrictions on government officials’ and spy agencies’ ability to interact with reporters.

The committee stripped a series of anti-leaks provisions from an intelligence spending bill that faced opposition from a senior member of the panel as well as media organizations and the U.S. spy chief.

One of the discarded measures would have eliminated a long-standing practice in Washington in which senior intelligence analysts occasionally provide “background briefings” for reporters on terrorism threats and other national security issues.

Other provisions would have restricted the ability of former national security officials to take jobs as TV commentators, and enabled heads of intelligence agencies to block pension payments to employees “determined” to have violated non-disclosure agreements.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee, said the language was removed because it became clear that opposition to the anti-leaks measures would have blocked Senate passage of the broader spending bill.

Feinstein also noted that James R. Clapper, director of National Intelligence, has independently “initiated a number of steps to improve detection and investigation of leaks that dovetail with our provisions.”

Still, the outcome was a setback for Feinstein, who for months had defended the legislation as critical to stanching the flow of secrets to the media. “The culture of leaks has to change,” Feinstein said when the bill was approved by the committee in July.

The measures were introduced at a time when U.S. officials were expressing outrage over a series of reports on sensitive U.S. operations, including the disruption of a terrorist plot in Yemen and the U.S. role in cyberattacks on the nuclear infrastructure in Iran.

But the Senate bill encountered opposition from Clapper, among others, who argued that it would inhibit the government’s ability to share information it wanted to relay to the public about terrorist threats and other national security concerns.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the intelligence panel, threatened to place a hold on the bill — a step that would block it from coming to a full vote — unless the anti-leaks provisions were changed or withdrawn.

Media organizations including The Washington Post supported lobbying efforts by the Newspaper Association of America in opposition to the bill’s leaks language.

The ban on “backgrounders” would have allowed only top officials at the CIA and other agencies, or their public affairs departments, to share information with the media.

That would have prevented analysts who are the government’s main experts on topics ranging from terrorism to climate change from taking part in sanctioned and supervised discussions with reporters.

Most of the briefings deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of events and avoid discussion of the operational activities of the CIA and other agencies. Feinstein acknowledged that she did not know of any evidence that backgrounders had led to leaks of classified information.

Despite the decision to abandon the anti-leaks measures, the issue remains a heated one. The Obama administration has initiated six leaks-related prosecutions, more than all previous administrations combined.

Meanwhile, the pending release of the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has reignited a controversy over the level of cooperation filmmakers got from the Obama administration.

Feinstein and two other senators sent a letter to Sony Pictures this week saying the film’s depiction of the CIA’s interrogation program — and the implication that it helped extract valuable information — was “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The Senate committee last week approved a report that concluded that water-boarding and other brutal CIA interrogation methods did not produce meaningful results. The contents of the report, based on a three-year review of internal CIA records, remain classified.

Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
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