Creating a Bizarro Reality for Intelligence Professionals

A new rule bars some of them from discussing information that is both already public and true.
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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Reuters)

Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a scathing report on the conduct of the Obama Administration. Its author, Leonard Downie Jr., who worked on the Watergate investigation at the Washington Post, declared that Obama's "war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration." David E. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, characterized today's executive branch as "the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered."

Back then, Obama seemed to be at war with whistleblowers and classified leaks. This week, the Obama Administration is targeting some noncombatant observers. 

According to a new policy put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, some current and former intelligence employees will be prohibited from discussing state secrets that have already been revealed to the public by someone else. They "must not use sourcing that comes from known leaks, or unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information,” the policy states, threatening "the imposition of civil and administrative penalties."

In a few days, Glenn Greenwald is releasing a new book that includes new revelations sourced to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. This rule won't help the Obama Administration to hide the classified material in those documents. It won't prevent foreigners from reading the documents. But it will help the Obama Administration to exert marginally more control over the political and policy debates that will inevitably be prompted by the newest disclosures. 

That's partly because any insider who wants to discuss leaked material in a way that the Obama Administration finds salutary will always able to do so with impunity.

Charlie Savage reported on the new policy in the New York Times:

Timothy H. Edgar, a visiting professor at Brown University who worked at the intelligence office and the White House from 2006 to 2013, said it was appropriate to block former officials from disclosing classified information and confirming leaks.

But, he said, it went too far to retroactively block former officials from citing news reports in the public domain, as long as they did so neutrally and did not confirm them as factually correct. That would amount to a prior restraint on former officials’ First Amendment rights that they did not consent to, he said.

“You’re basically saying people can’t talk about what everyone in the country is talking about,” he said. “I think that is awkward and overly broad in terms of restricting speech.”

What the policy brought to mind, for me, is that classic Ron Suskind story about the Bush Administration:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

The logic is different, of course. But the Obama Administration is instituting a policy that would inevitably isolate intelligence professionals from the reality-based community as it engages with politics, policymaking, and civic life. Apparently, those who confront reality are alike; those who evade it do so in their own ways.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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