Report on Disclosures to the Media is Classified

A report to Congress on authorized disclosures of classified intelligence to the media — not unauthorized disclosures — is classified and is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, the National Security Agency said.

The notion of an authorized disclosure of classified information is close to being a contradiction in terms. If something is classified, how can its disclosure be authorized (without declassification)? And if something is disclosed by an official who is authorized to do so, how can it still be classified? And yet, it seems that there is such a thing.

Confronted by a pressing question from a reporter on a classified matter, an official might opt to acknowledge or disclose classified information in response, without necessarily intending to broadcast that information to everyone. In such cases, the information might be disclosed without being declassified, especially if it is already known to the reporter through other channels.

In the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2013 (sec. 504), Congress directed that “In the event of an authorized disclosure of national intelligence” to the media, the government official responsible for authorizing the disclosure shall notify Congress in a timely fashion whenever the intelligence disclosed is classified (or declassified for the purpose of the disclosure).

The purpose of that requirement was to ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are made aware of authorized disclosures to the press “so that, among other things, these authorized disclosures may be distinguished from unauthorized ‘leaks’,” according to the Senate report on the FY2013 intelligence bill.

So what disclosures of classified intelligence to the media were approved by government officials and reported to Congress, we asked earlier this year? The National Security Agency refuses to disclose those disclosures.

“The document responsive to your request has been reviewed by this Agency as required by the FOIA and has been found to be currently and properly classified in accordance with Executive Order 13526,” according to an October 2 letter signed by retiring NSA FOIA chief Pamela N. Phillips. “The document is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

We appealed the denial.

“It is well established that information, including classified information, that has been publicly disclosed on an authorized basis loses its exemption from disclosure under FOIA,” the FAS appeal letter said.

“Since the requested document addresses ‘authorized public disclosures,’ the substance of those authorized disclosures may no longer be withheld.”

WWII Atomic Bomb Project Had More Than 1,500 “Leaks”

The Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II was among the most highly classified and tightly secured programs ever undertaken by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, it generated more than 1,500 leak investigations involving unauthorized disclosures of classified Project information.

That remarkable fact is noted in the latest declassified volume of the official Manhattan District History (Volume 14, Intelligence & Security) that was approved for release and posted online by the Department of Energy last month.

In several respects, the Manhattan Project established the template for secret government programs during the Cold War (and after). It pioneered or refined the practices of compartmentalization of information, “black” budgets, cover and deception to conceal secret facilities, minimal notification to Congress, and more.

But wherever there are national security secrets, it seems that leaks and spies are not far behind.

During the course of the Manhattan Project, counterintelligence agents “handled more than 1,000 general subversive investigations, over 1,500 cases in which classified project information was transmitted to unauthorized persons, approximately 100 suspected espionage cases, and approximately 200 suspected sabotage cases,” according to the newly declassified history (at pp. S2-3).

Most of the 1,500 leak cases seem to have been inadvertent disclosures rather than deliberate releases to the news media of the contemporary sort. But they were diligently investigated nonetheless. “Complete security of information could be achieved only by following all leaks to their source.”

In 1943, there were several seemingly unrelated cases of Protestant clergymen in the South preaching sermons that alarmingly cited “the devastating energy contained in minute quantities of Uranium 235″ (while contrasting it with “the power of God [that] was infinitely greater”). The sermons were eventually traced back to a pamphlet distributed by a Bible college in Chicago, which was determined to be harmless. Other disclosures cited in the history involved more serious indiscretions that drew punitive action.

“Since September 1943, investigations were conducted of more than 1500 ‘loose talk’ or leakage of information cases and corrective action was taken in more than 1200 violations of procedures for handling classified material,” the history said (p. 6.5).

“Upon discovery of the source of a violation of regulations for safeguarding military information, the violator, if a project employee, was usually reprimanded, informed of the possible application of the Espionage Act, and warned not to repeat the violation.”

Fundamentally, however, information security was not to be achieved by the force of law or the threat of punishment. Rather, it was rooted in shared values and common commitments, the Project history said.

“Grounds for protecting information were largely patriotism, loyalty to the fighting men, and the reasoning that the less publicity given the Project, the more difficult it would be for the enemy to acquire information about it and also, the greater would be the element of surprise” (p. 6.13).

The only other remaining portion of the official history, Foreign Intelligence Supplement No. 1 to Manhattan District History Volume 14, was also published online last month. It provided an account of U.S. wartime intelligence collection aimed at enemy scientific research and development. Some information in that volume was deleted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The entire thirty-six volume Manhattan District history has now been declassified and posted online.

Leaked Document to be Introduced in State Secrets Case

The plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the use of the “no fly list” to bar a US citizen from boarding an aircraft said last week that he would introduce a leaked copy of the government’s Watchlisting Guidance “to show just how objectionable and evidence-free Defendants’ watch listing process is.”

The government said it did not acknowledge the authenticity of the leaked document, and that the case should be dismissed since the Attorney General had invoked the state secrets privilege concerning core issues that it raised.

The lawsuit was filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of Gulet Mohamed, who said his constitutional rights had been violated by placing him on the no fly list.

In May 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder filed a declaration asserting the state secrets privilege over documents and information that it said would be needed to litigate the case, and the government moved for dismissal of the entire matter.

Among other things, the Attorney General said that the state secrets privilege extended to the current Watchlisting Guidance that spells out the criteria and procedures for placing an individual on the no fly list.

“The Guidance sets forth, in detail, the Government’s comprehensive watchlist scheme related to the identification and placement of individuals in terrorism screening watchlists,” AG Holder wrote in his May 27, 2014 declaration asserting the privilege.

“If the Guidance were released, it would provide a clear roadmap to undermine the Government’s screening efforts, a key counterterrorism measure, and thus, its disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause significant harm to national security,” he wrote.

But then last month, the online publication The Intercept reported on the Watchlisting Guidance and published the document itself. (The Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, July 23.)

In an August 15 statement to the Court, the CAIR attorneys for Gulet Mohamed said that they would file a copy of the Guidance and another leaked document in a Notice this week.

“Plaintiff will argue that this document is relevant, not only to show just how objectionable and evidence-free Defendants’ watch listing process is, but also to how this Court handles Defendants’ state secrets privilege,” the attorneys wrote.

In the same August 15 statement, the government said it would not confirm that the documents to be filed by CAIR are authentic, or even that they had actually been leaked.

“Defendants do not acknowledge the authenticity of the purportedly leaked documents, and will respond to the proposed Notice in due course,” attorneys for the government stated.

While withholding confirmation, however, they have stopped short of affirmatively disputing that the documents are authentic.

The Gulet Mohamed case is believed to be the most recent instance of the government’s use of the state secrets privilege.

In a 2011 report to Congress, the Justice Department had said it would try not to employ the privilege in a way that would require dismissal of an entire complaint.

“While invocation of the privilege may result in the dismissal of some claims, the Department’s policy seeks to avoid that result whenever possible, consistent with national security interests.”

But in this case, the government told the Court that nothing short of complete dismissal would do.

“If the Attorney General’s privilege assertion is upheld, as it should be, the law requires that the Court then consider the consequences of the exclusion of the privileged information,” the Department said in a May 28 memo elaborating its position. “Here, because properly protected national security information would go to the core of the claims and defenses, this case cannot proceed in the absence of that information, and, under established Fourth Circuit authority, the case must be dismissed.”

Attorneys for the plaintiff disputed that view, and said the case could and should proceed.

“Simply put, just as federal courts in Latif and Ibrahim [other cases involving the no fly list] found a way to litigate the merits of No Fly List claims without imperiling state secrets, this Court can do so here as well,” the CAIR attorneys wrote in a July 7 rejoinder. “Though Plaintiff will seek additional non-privileged information from Defendants, it is important to note at the outset that Plaintiff can, if need be, litigate this case without further discovery from Defendants,” they wrote.

The case is being heard by Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia. He has yet to rule on the pending Government motion for dismissal on state secrets grounds.

In a move that may imply a degree of skepticism concerning the proposed application of the privilege, Judge Trenga ordered the government to submit for in camera review a copy of all documents and a summary of all testimony relevant to the case that it asserts fall under the state secrets privilege. The materials are to be provided to the Court under seal by September 7, Judge Trenga wrote in an August 6 order.

For further background, see 2008 Obama Would Have Slammed 2014 Obama for This Government Secrecy Case by Nick Baumann, Mother Jones, July 14, 2014; and Over Government Objections, Rules on No-Fly List Are Made Public by Charlie Savage, New York Times, July 23, 2014.

A Look Behind President Clinton’s Veto of an Anti-Leak Bill

In 2000, both houses of Congress passed legislation that would have made any leak of classified information a felony.

The provision, contained in the FY2001 intelligence authorization act, was designed “to ensure the prosecution of all unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the primary sponsor of the provision, at the time.

While some unauthorized disclosures of classified information were already prohibited by statute (including the Espionage Act), others have not been specifically outlawed, or else their legal status is uncertain, requiring strenuous efforts by prosecutors to fit a prohibition to the presumed offense. The Shelby provision would have removed all ambiguities and would have simply criminalized all leaks of classified information.

But to the astonishment of nearly everyone, and to the relief of many, President Clinton vetoed the 2001 intelligence authorization bill because of the anti-leak measure.

“Although well intentioned, that provision is overbroad and may unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy,” he wrote in his November 4, 2000 veto message.

But that unexpected outcome almost didn’t come to pass.

Instead of a veto, White House lawyers had prepared draft signing statements for President Clinton in which he would have approved the bill, while expressing some reservations about its potential impact.

The draft signing statements were released by the Clinton Presidential Library last week. The newly disclosed presidential documents were first noted by Josh Gerstein in Politico on July 18.

“I strongly believe… that this new provision should not be applied in a manner that could chill legitimate activity or transform questions of judgment into criminal referrals,” according to the draft signing statement for President Clinton that was ultimately set aside in favor of a veto of the bill.

The worst effects of the anti-leak measure could be avoided by the limited, judicious use of prosecutorial authority, White House lawyers initially suggested.

“It is extraordinarily important, therefore, that the Justice Department use its prosecutorial discretion wisely when apparently unauthorized disclosures are referred to it for possible prosecution under this new provision,” the draft signing statement said.

Prosecutorial discretion often seems to be in short supply, however, and in all likelihood it would not have been an effective bulwark against abuse of the vetoed anti-leak provision, had it passed into law.

An apparent excess of zeal in the prosecution of classified document (mis-)handling was highlighted just last week in the case of Navy contract linguist James F. Hitselberger, who had been charged with multiple felonies in connection with the unlawful retention of national defense information. Earlier this year, Mr. Hitselberger pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to time already served (in pre-trial custody) and a fine of $250.00.

DNI Issues New Policy on Leak Damage Assessments

The Director of National Intelligence has issued new guidance on assessing damage resulting from the unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence information to ensure that the damage assessments “are produced in an efficient, timely, consistent and collaborative manner.”

Leak damage assessments should be used iteratively and the lessons learned from them should be applied “to strengthen the protection of classified national intelligence and prevent future unauthorized disclosures or compromises.”

In addition to the facts and circumstances of the unauthorized disclosure, damage assessments should identify “any foreign involvement” in the case and “actionable recommendations to prevent future occurrences.”

Where foreign partners are affected by the leak, agency heads shall coordinate with DNI “prior to notifying a foreign government.” Also, “foreign governments normally will not be advised of any security system vulnerabilities that contributed to the compromise.”

See “Damage Assessments,” Intelligence Community Directive 732, June 27, 2014.

Espionage Act Case Was “Overcharged,” Defense Says

In 2012, former Navy linguist James F. Hitselberger was indicted on two felony counts under the Espionage Act statutes after several classified documents were found in his possession. In 2013, a superseding indictment charged him with another four felony counts.

But in the end, Mr. Hitselberger pleaded guilty this year to a single misdemeanor charge of removing classified documents without authorization.

Now both the defense and the prosecution are endorsing Hitselberger’s request that any jail penalty be limited to the time he has already served, including two months in DC jail and eight months of home confinement. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 17.

Despite the stark disparity between the multiple felony counts with which Hitselberger was charged, and the single misdemeanor of which he was convicted, the prosecution said that it had no second thoughts about the way the matter was handled.

“It is important to note that the government’s case against Mr. Hitselberger did not collapse,” prosecutors said in a June 27 sentencing memorandum. To the contrary, prosecutors wrote, “in several ways, the government’s case became stronger than what it had been when the charges were first obtained.”

Defense attorneys disputed that assertion and said the government had overreached.

“At a minimum, the evidence demonstrates that the government significantly overcharged the case, and the guilty plea to a misdemeanor not only was the appropriate result, but also demonstrates how the offense should have been charged from the beginning,” the defense wrote in a June 27 reply.

The mountain of Espionage Act charges that yielded a molehill of a misdemeanor in this case recalls a similar progression in the prosecution of former NSA official Thomas Drake, where ten felony counts gave way to a technical misdemeanor. This recurring pattern may indicate that overcharging is a standard prosecutorial approach to such cases, or that the judicial process is effectively winnowing out excessive felony charges, or perhaps both.

A June 26 sentencing memorandum submitted by the defense presented its own account of the facts of the case, along with several moving testimonials from Hitselberger’s friends and relatives as to his character.

In another pending Espionage Act case, the Obama Administration must decide if it will pursue a subpoena against New York Times reporter James Risen. For a current update, see Reporter’s Case Poses Dilemma for Justice Dept. by Jonathan Mahler, New York Times, June 27.

Selective Prosecution and the Espionage Act

Government officials disclose classified information to the press with some frequency, but only rarely are they prosecuted for it.

Such selective prosecution renders the law unfair, said attorney Abbe Lowell at the April 2 sentencing hearing of his client, Stephen Kim, who pled guilty to an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

Mr. Kim, a former State Department Korea specialist who could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, received a 13 month jail sentence. The transcript of the April 2 sentencing hearing is now available here.

The fact that senior officials go unpunished for comparable or greater offenses “doesn’t mean that Mr. Kim didn’t violate the law,” said Mr. Lowell. But “it means that our system is out of balance.”

The “antiquated” Espionage Act that is used to prosecute leaks is “one very blunt tool,” Mr. Lowell said.

Still, “There’s some good that can come from this case,” Mr. Lowell suggested. He noted that it had already led the Department of Justice to revise its policy and practice on investigating or charging members of the news media.

In other leak-related news, the Obama Administration argued that there is no privilege that would excuse New York Times reporter James Risen from testifying in court as to the identity of the source who provided him with classified information. In an April 25 brief, the Administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject Mr. Risen’s petition to review the matter.

Meanwhile, former Navy linguist James Hitselberger, who had been charged under the Espionage Act with unlawful retention of national defense information (18 USC 793e), pleaded guilty on April 25 to a lesser offense of unauthorized retention of classified information (18 USC 1924), which carries a sentence of up to one year in prison. He is to be sentenced on July 17. (More from Josh Gerstein in Politico.)

 

Intelligence Directive Bars Unauthorized Contacts with News Media

The Director of National Intelligence has forbidden most intelligence community employees from discussing “intelligence-related information” with a reporter unless they have specific authorization to do so, according to an Intelligence Community Directive that was issued last month.

“IC employees… must obtain authorization for contacts with the media” on intelligence-related matters, and “must also report… unplanned or unintentional contact with the media on covered matters,” the Directive stated.

The new Directive reflects — and escalates — tensions between the government and the press over leaks of classified information. It is intended “to mitigate risks of unauthorized disclosures of intelligence-related matters that may result from such contacts.” See Intelligence Community Directive 119, Media Contacts, March 20, 2014.

Significantly, however, the new prohibition does not distinguish between classified and unclassified intelligence information. The “covered matters” that require prior authorization before an employee may discuss them with a reporter extend to any topic that is “related” to intelligence, irrespective of its classification status.

The Directive prohibits unauthorized “contact with the media about intelligence-related information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities, and judgments (hereafter, ‘covered matters’).”

If an employee’s contact with the media involves an unauthorized disclosure of classified information, then he could be subject to criminal prosecution. But even if classified information were not communicated to the reporter, the Directive indicates, violation of the new policy “at a minimum… will be handled in the same manner as a security violation.”

“IC employees who are found to be in violation of this IC policy may be subject to administrative actions that may include revocation of security clearance or termination of employment,” the Directive states.

The new Directive creates an anomalous situation in which routine interactions that are permissible between an intelligence employee and an ordinary member of the public are now to be prohibited if that member of the public qualifies as “media.”

So under most circumstances, an intelligence community employee is at liberty to discuss unclassified “intelligence-related information” with his or her next-door neighbor. But if the neighbor happened to be a member of the media, then the contact would be prohibited altogether without prior authorization.

Meanwhile, the Directive defines membership in “the media” expansively. It is not necessary to be a credentialed reporter for an established news organization. It is sufficient to be “any person… engaged in the collection, production, or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security….”

Moreover, even approved contacts are to be formally documented for future review. “IC elements should ensure their records on media contacts are sufficient to support executive and legislative branch oversight requirements.”

Essentially, the Directive seeks to ensure that the only contacts that occur between intelligence community employees and the press are those that have been approved in advance. Henceforward, the only news about intelligence is to be authorized news.

The IC policy bears some resemblance to a proposal that was advanced by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012, and then withdrawn in response to widespread criticism.

The Senate’s initial version of the FY2012 intelligence authorization act (Section 506) would have required that only specifically designated officials would be permitted to provide “background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”

That provision would “lead to a less-informed debate on national security issues, by prohibiting nearly all intelligence agency employees from providing briefings to the press, unless those employees give their names and provide the briefing on the record,” said Sen. Ron Wyden at the time.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that prohibiting the intelligence agencies from providing these briefings would benefit national security in any way, so I see no reason to limit the flow of information in this manner,” he said then.

Likewise, there is no particular reason to think that routine interactions between intelligence agency employees and reporters — especially on unclassified matters — pose any kind of threat to national security, or that limiting them will offer any benefit. However, the new policy is likely to be effective in reducing the quality, independence and critical content of intelligence-related information that is available to the press and the public.

“I think we are going to make headway over the next few weeks on media leaks,” said outgoing National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander at an event on March 4. At the time, it was unclear what he was referring to, but he might have had the March 20 Intelligence Community Directive 119 in mind.

ODNI Rethinks Secrecy and Openness in Intelligence

By leaking classified intelligence documents, Edward Snowden transformed public awareness of the scale and scope of U.S. intelligence surveillance programs. But his actions are proving to be no less consequential for national security secrecy policy.

“These leaks have forced the Intelligence Community to rethink our approach to transparency and secrecy,” said Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He spoke at a March 18 Freedom of Information Day program sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law.

Mr. Litt made it clear that he did not approve of the Snowden leaks, which he said were unlawful and had “seriously damaged our national security.” Yet he stressed that the leaks have also prompted a reconsideration of previously accepted patterns of secrecy.

“We have had to reassess how we strike the balance between the need to keep secret the sensitive sources, methods and targets of our intelligence activities, and the goal of transparency with the American people about the rules and policies governing those activities.”

“One lesson that I have drawn from the recent events… is that we would likely have suffered less damage from the leaks had we been more forthcoming about some of our activities, and particularly about the policies and decisions behind those activities,” Mr. Litt said.  (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the same point to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast last month.)

“Going forward, I believe that the Intelligence Community is going to need to be much more forward-leaning in what we tell the American people about what we do,” Mr. Litt said. “We need to scrutinize more closely what truly needs to be classified in order to protect what needs to be protected. And we need to move beyond the mindset of merely reacting to formal requests that we make information public, to a mindset of proactively making available as much information as we can, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods.”

“Greater disclosure to the public is necessary to restore the American people’s trust that intelligence activities are not only lawful and important to protecting our national security, but that they are appropriate and proportional in light of the privacy interests at stake. In the long run, our ability to protect the public requires that we have the public’s support,” Mr. Litt said.

While Mr. Litt’s remarks conveyed an overall message of beneficence, responsiveness, and good citizenship, they also had some peculiar features.

It is disconcerting to realize that the reassessment of classification policy described by Mr. Litt was not prompted by the diligent exercise of congressional oversight or by judicial review or by ordinary advocacy. Rather it was explicitly inspired by the Snowden leaks, which Mr. Litt described as “criminal.” The upshot is that leaks emerge as a uniquely powerful tool for shaping intelligence classification policy, while conventional checks and balances appear all but irrelevant by comparison.

Moreover, the purpose of the newfound push for greater transparency seems to be instrumental, not principled. In other words, it is driven by tactical considerations, not by statutory requirements or any other objective norm.

“I strongly believe that the best way to prevent the damage that leakers can cause is by increased transparency on our part,” Mr. Litt said. “Transparency can both lessen the incentive for disaffected employees to disclose our activities improperly, and provide the public appropriate context to evaluate leaks when they occur.”

That implies that what is needed is only as much transparency as it takes to achieve these imprecise and transient goals. It is a unilateral move that can be unilaterally reversed.

And then there is the fact that Mr. Litt’s rethinking of classification policy implies no new institutional reforms or externally-imposed constraints. Instead, the very same people who have classified too much up to now are suddenly expected to change course and to disclose more. It is not immediately clear how or why that would happen.

“There is no question that overclassification of information is a genuine problem,” Mr. Litt said. “So how do we deal with the problem of overclassification? I think that there are three principal steps we can take.”

“The first is to change the culture. We need high-level management emphasis on the problem of overclassification,” he said. To his credit, Mr. Litt has helped provide such emphasis.

“Second, we need to continue our efforts at proactive transparency– at reviewing information that we have historically protected to see whether, in fact, the overall public interest would better be served by releasing the information.” Significantly, however, he refrained from providing specific performance goals or benchmarks by which future progress could be measured.

“Finally, I think that those in the agencies who are responsible for responding to FOIA requests, and who are representing the government in FOIA litigation, need to look critically at all potentially responsive documents that are classified,” Mr. Litt said. “We should focus not on whether we can protect information, but whether we should.”

This is an interesting formulation. Most FOIA officers do not have authority to declassify records, and the adversarial nature of the FOIA process is rarely conducive to self-critical analysis of established agency policies even by more senior officials. But sometimes it is.

In 1997, the Federation of American Scientists filed suit against the CIA for release of the intelligence budget total for that year. The CIA ultimately decided that it could not defend its position of classifying the figure, according to an internal draft statement that was prepared for DCI George Tenet and released by the Clinton Library just last week.

“In order to defend this lawsuit,” the Tenet statement read, “I, as head of the Intelligence Community, would have had to sign a declaration to the court that release of the figure in question could cause serious damage to the national security. I found that, in good conscience, I could not attest to that statement.”

But such judgments are fluid and can be fleeting. Two years later, in response to another lawsuit for the 1999 budget figure, Director Tenet had no trouble declaring under oath that “Disclosure of… the total appropriation reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security in several ways.”

So spontaneous gestures of openness and transparency, as welcome as they may be, are imperfect substitutes for systemic change and external accountability.

News organizations have now released some 1,300 pages of classified records leaked by Edward Snowden, according to a tally by cryptome.org.  In response, US intelligence agencies have declassified and disclosed approximately twice that many.

“Our commitment to increased transparency will continue,” Mr. Litt said.