Capitol Hill Leak Hysteria Leaves Pentagon Reporters Rattled

On the campaign trail, Republicans are using national security leaks to attack President Obama. But reporters may be the ones who ultimately suffer from this summer's leak hysteria.

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On the campaign trail, Republicans are using national security leaks to attack President Obama. But reporters may be the ones who ultimately suffer from this summer's leak hysteria.

Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee passed legislation restricting the way intelligence agents communicate with the media. According to The Hill's Jeremy Herb, the bill reduces the number of federal officials who can speak with the press and requires the executive branch to "notify Congress" when it authorizes disclosures on intelligence information. The bill's passage also follows a new directive by the Pentagon on preventing leaks, which includes new procedures for monitoring journalists. Already, the new rules are worrying the people it will affect most: national security reporters.

You could call it the war against the war against leaks, and it's getting testier as the federal government looks to respond to the outrage over the disclosure of sensitive information (e.g. the Osama bin Laden raid details, Stuxnet, the president's "kill list," etc) and defense reporters are beginning to speak out." Can national security reporters form a PAC to advocate against draconian anti-leak policies?" tweets Newsweek defense reporter Eli Lake. He is by no means alone in his disgust. The main sticking point with Lake's ilk is the word "monitor," which is included in the Defense Department's new policy:

“The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, will monitor all major, national level reporting for unauthorized disclosures of defense department classified information.” 

That word, "monitor," according to the Pentagon Press Association, which represents defense reporters, "could be interpreted by some as authorizing intrusive actions aimed at members of the news media who report on defense issues," according to a letter the group sent to the Pentagon last week. The letter included pointed questions like: “Do you have authority to do the following:  tap phones at work or home? intercept or monitor emails? conduct monitoring or surveillance of Pentagon press workspaces?” The Pentagon initially responded saying it will "of course, review this letter" but defense reporters have yet to be reassured by the military that it doesn't think it can spy on them. You can get a sense of this frustration in a transcript of yesterday's press briefing with Pentagon Spokesman George Little. He and Bloomberg reporter Tony Capaccio, in particular, had a heated exchange (the full transcript is here):

Capaccio: “You don’t think it’s going to have a chilling effect on media interplay with officials here? Every official is going to be worried that George Little or Mike Vickers is going to be parsing his words in articles to see if he gave up classified information.”

Little: “We have an obligation to take a look at reporting, and if we think there’s been a disclosure of sensitive information, doesn’t it behoove us, isn’t it our responsibility to track down where that might be coming from?”

Capaccio: “The whole notion of classification in this building has degenerated into a joke, most reporters and a lot of officials would agree. What steps are you going to be taking to make sure when you analyze these news stories that it’s really classified-classified versus B.S. classified information?”

Little: “We haven’t defined precisely what steps we’re going to take.”

While there hasn't been any evidence yet of foul play, reporters are still concerned. "What was unclear is how the Pentagon intends to monitor the media," Pentagon Press Association Vice President Kevin Baron said Tuesday in an interview with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "We understand their concerns about leaks, but [the association] is worried about the Pentagon's role in monitoring reporters as well as employees." The concerns of reporters, who are the core way we find out out about what the nation is doing at home and abroad to protect its citizens, are important to remember, especially as attacks against leaks turn into a witch hunt. Of the leaks, Romney said yesterday, “It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence.” Just remember the chilling effect the discouragement of leaks can have on reporters tasked with delivering the news.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.