Politics is PR writ large, and anyone who follows the Game of (Congressional) Seats knows how important “unauthorized disclosures” can be to journalists looking to better inform the public about how the sausage is made.
Citing such disclosures has long been the best way for an office/administration to address important information that it didn’t release in any official capacity–information like The Guardian’s Edward Snowden leaks, which demanded a public response.
In a story we didn’t have time to address last week, The White House made clear that it’s no longer OK with this old school push-pull approach by officially forbidding current and former national intelligence officials from commenting about stories based on intel data–whether that information happens to be classified or not.
So no one who works or has worked for the NSA–or any of the 16 other intel agencies–can discuss Snowden or any other story known to involve leaks.
In our admittedly rough metaphor, it’s the agency equivalent of being forbidden from mentioning a certain client even if information about that client has already been released or leaked.
The purpose of this new rule is to prevent officials from discussing any and all elements of intelligence operations with members of the public–including, most importantly, journalists.
Intel insiders have always had to submit their writings and related materials for approval to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but this move goes a step further in managing the message by prohibiting now-retired officeholders from mentioning such matters in writings, speeches, online chat rooms…you get the picture.
Here’s the thing: these sensitive matters concern the very subject on which the administration has witnessed the greatest damage to its own credibility. In its haste to prevent future incidents like the ones created by Snowden and Private Chelsea Manning, the national security team is allowing and even encouraging further speculation and paranoia about its own intel practices.
A spokesman for James Clapper, the national intel director who doubled as Washington’s most popular pinata over the past year, said:
“…in practice each case is unique and officials work with O.D.N.I. personnel to allow for as much public release as possible.”
But while this may be true, the rule certainly reads like one that will ensure even less transparency between intel officials and journalists on issues related to national security. It will also theoretically limit the intelligence community’s ability to respond to crises when they strike.
The Obama administration obviously believes this principle to be more important than its own reputation on such matters–otherwise, the move would seem like a terrible PR decision.