Employees of U.S. intelligence agencies have been barred from discussing without authorization any intelligence-related matter - even if it isn't classified - with journalists, under a new directive issued by Director of National Security James Clapper.
Intelligence agency employees who violate the policy could suffer career-ending losses of their security clearances or out-right termination, and those who disclose classified information could face criminal prosecution, according to the directive signed by Clapper on March 20.
Under the order, only the director or deputy head of an intelligence agency, public affairs officials and those authorized by a public affairs official may have contact with journalists on intelligence-related matters.
The order, which was made public on Monday by Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, is sweeping in its definition of intelligence-related matters.
"The directive is limited to contact with the media about intelligence related-information, including intelligence sources, methods, activities and judgments," says the order, which doesn't distinguish between classified and unclassified matters.
It also includes a sweeping definition of who is a journalist, which it asserts is "any person . . . engaged in the collection, production, or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security."
The order represents the latest move by the Obama administration to stifle leaks. It bolsters another administration initiative, called the Insider Threat Program, which requires federal employees to report co-workers who show any of a broad variety of "high risk" behaviors that could indicate that they could be sources of unauthorized releases of classified or unclassified material.
President Barack Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group.
The administration redoubled its crackdown after the leaks to news media of classified information on the National Security Agency's top-secret communications data collection operations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Clapper's new directive "is a response to the same basic anxiety: that intelligence employees might be talking out of school," said Aftergood. "It's what I think is a rather heavy handed attempt to crack down on unauthorized communications. It doesn't specify that it's limited to classified information and indeed, disclosures of classified information are already prohibited if unauthorized."
"IC employees . . . must obtain authorization for contacts with the media" when it comes to intelligence-related matters, and they "must also report . . . unplanned or unintentional contact with the media on covered matters," the directive says.
Clapper's order, he said, could end up hurting the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. intelligence agencies will issue information that only is approved by his office, and alternate voices that could call attention to inaccurate or incomplete statements will be smothered or dissuaded from speaking out.
"Ultimately, it (the new directive) is going to be self-defeating because it's going to undermine the credibility of the news emanating from the intelligence community," said Aftergood. "Whether because of deception or error or whatever it might be, the authorized official view is not always the right one and it is usually incomplete."
From exaggerated and bogus information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to Clapper's own misleading statement on the collection of Americans' private communications data, the U.S. intelligence community already has a substantial record of issuing inaccurate or abbreviated information to the public.