An anti-leak measure approved by a key Senate committee would all but eliminate a long-standing practice in Washington in which senior intelligence analysts occasionally provide what are known as background briefings for reporters.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that the provision represents an attempt to “try to bring some order” to what many lawmakers regard as a disturbing lack of discipline in handling the nation’s secrets.
“What we’re trying to do is just add responsibility to the chain of command within the government to try to be sure that information is not given out that is either compartmented or classified,” Feinstein said in an interview.
If the bill is passed into law, the provision would make it illegal for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make analysts available to discuss unclassified national security issues unless the experts are identified publicly.
In recent months, agencies have held sessions on topics including the conflict in Syria and the impact on al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden’s demise. Agencies sometimes also provide briefings for reporters heading overseas to work in war zones or foreign capitals.
Under the Senate bill, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be allowed “to provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”
The term “background” typically means that a source can be identified broadly by his or her government position but not by name. The bill would not prevent analysts from speaking on the record, but they are rarely allowed to be identified because of security concerns.
The provision is part of a series of anti-leak measures included in an authorization bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The crackdown is fueled by frustration over recent articles that disclosed details of U.S. counterterrorism operations and cyber-penetrations of Iran.
Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.
Eliminating unclassified background briefings “doesn’t serve any valid purpose,” said Steven Aftergood, an expert on classification issues for the Federation of American Scientists. “It seems like an expression of pique, not a sensible response to a real problem.”
Some lawmakers expressed outrage earlier this year that they learned about sensitive operations, including a thwarted terrorist plot in Yemen, from the media before receiving briefings from the Obama administration.
Asked why the provision was included, Feinstein said it had been recommended by committee staff members and reflects long-standing rules on the panel that allow only top aides to be in contact with reporters.
Feinstein said the language could still be altered, but she defended its intent. “I know we’ve been badly hurt” by leaks, Feinstein said. “This has put people’s lives in jeopardy and the families of people in jeopardy.”
A committee aide acknowledged that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper had raised concerns about the provision but said that neither Clapper nor any other official has raised a “formal” objection to the bill.
A spokesman for the DNI’s office declined to comment.
Other U.S. officials said spy agencies sometimes see an advantage in sharing their assessments, including reports on the progress against al-Qaeda, with the public.
The measure has also triggered concern in the media. The Washington Post is supporting lobbying efforts by the Newspaper Association of America in opposition to the anti-leak provisions.
The bill must be passed by the full Senate and is under review by the House Intelligence Committee. In a measure of the shared concern over the issue, the House panel recently asked Clapper’s office for an accounting of the number of background briefings conducted by spy agencies for reporters over the past year. An aide said the committee is still waiting for a response.