AT A time when U.S. intelligence agencies need to regain the confidence and support of the American people, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, is taking a huge backward step. In a directive dated March 20 but disclosed only Monday, Mr. Clapper has restricted the circumstances under which intelligence-community employees can talk to the news media, even about unclassified information. The directive, No. 119, “Media Contacts,” is overly broad and wrongheaded and will prove counterproductive.
The directive prohibits unauthorized “contact with the media about intelligence-related information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities and judgments,” without regard to whether it is classified. Those who violate the directive may be subject to punishment. Only top officials of the intelligence agencies or their designates can decide who should talk to the news media.
Mr. Clapper seems intent on shutting down any informal or unauthorized discussion by anyone except those whom the bosses designate. This will most certainly threaten the informal channel that has long existed between reporters and sources discussing intelligence matters for the benefit of better public understanding, often on background or not for attribution. For example, it appears the new directive would prohibit an intelligence-community employee from discussing with the media, without high-level authorization, such critical matters as Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine, judgments about the strength of al-Qaeda or dozens of other topics that come up every day in the news and relate to intelligence.
An open society needs such information, which can be shared without endangering sensitive sources and methods or disrupting clandestine operations. Mr. Clapper wants the American people to know only what he or other chiefs approve, when they approve it. Mr. Clapper’s own performance — his untruthful answer to a question in an open congressional hearing about government surveillance programs — should give everyone pause about his commitment to transparency.
The directive defines the news media very broadly: “print, broadcast, film and Internet.” Does Mr. Clapper next plan a gag order on talking to family members or neighbors about unclassified information? What if an intelligence-community employee mentions something unclassified over the back fence to a businessman who is his or her neighbor? Is that punishable? Mr. Clapper should trust employees to honor their oaths to keep secrets, not attempt to nanny their contacts.
Everyone in the intelligence community is familiar with the growing and worrisome problem of overclassification : Enormous volumes of material are unnecessarily stamped secret every day. Mr. Clapper would be wise to devote more time to sorting through this systemic dysfunction than to muzzling informal contacts with the news media.
It is unfortunate that Mr. Clapper’s directive works in the opposite direction of what is needed. After the Edward Snowden affair, the intelligence community needs to build trust in its work, which is vital to the nation. Instead, the new directive will lead to more isolation and suspicion.
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