Secrecy News

Disclosing Classified Info to the Press — With Permission

Intelligence officials disclosed classified information to members of the press on at least three occasions in 2013, according to a National Security Agency report to Congress that was released last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

See Congressional Notification — Authorized Disclosures of Classified Information to Media Personnel, NSA memorandum to the staff director, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, December 13, 2013.

The specific information that NSA gave to the unnamed reporters was not declassified. But the disclosures were not “leaks,” or unauthorized disclosures. They were, instead, authorized disclosures. For their part, the reporters agreed not to disseminate the information further.

“Noteworthy among the classified topics disclosed were NSA’s use of metadata to locate terrorists, the techniques we use and the processes we follow to assist in locating hostages, [several words deleted] overseas support to the warfighter and U.S. allies in war zones, and NSA support to overall USG efforts to mitigate cyber threats. The [deleted] personnel executed non-disclosure agreements that covered all classified discussions.”

In one case, “classified information was disclosed in order to correct inaccurate understandings held by the reporter about the nature and circumstances of [deleted].”

On another occasion, “classified information was disclosed in an effort to limit or avoid reporting that could lead to the loss of the capability [deleted].”

In all three cases, “the decision to disclose classified information was made in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence pursuant to Executive Order 13526, and in each case the information disclosed remains properly classified.”

This seems like a generous interpretation of the Executive Order, which does not mention disclosures to the press at all. It does say, in section 4.2(b) that “In an emergency, when necessary to respond to an imminent threat to life or in defense of the homeland, the agency head or any designee may authorize the disclosure of classified information […] to an individual or individuals who are otherwise not eligible for access.” In an emergency, then, but not just “to correct inaccurate understandings.”

Still, the report accurately reflects the true instrumental nature of the classification system. That is, the protection of classified information under all circumstances is not a paramount goal. National security secrecy is a tool to be used if it advances the national interest (and is consistent with law and policy) and to be set aside when it does not.

So hypocrisy in the handling of classified information is not an issue here. The concern, rather, is that the power of selective disclosure of classified material can be easily abused to manage and to manipulate public perceptions. The congressional requirement to report on authorized disclosures of classified information to the press may help to mitigate that danger.