The information wars

The US government continues its efforts to clamp down on leaks of classified information.

The US has imposed strict rules on defence and intelligence employees to preclude information leaks [Reuters]

The Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote that in wartime “truth” is the first casualty, an observation that was later repeated by Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, and isolationist US Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917 as the United States entered World War I. Modern governments do indeed like to control information, partly to shape the narrative of their activities to influence world opinion, but mostly for the domestic audience to generate popular support for policies that might otherwise prove unsustainable. 

The pretext for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is often cited as a war built on a series of lies that were cynically exploited by the White House. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, was not seeking uranium in Niger, and did not in any way support the 9/11 hijackers, but all those narratives and more were floated to justify the US invasion.

As most of the world currently obtains its information from news services and internet sources that are beyond the control of any one government, various mechanisms have been considered to limit the ability of the public to circumvent established narratives being promoted to support specific policies. Recently in Turkey, the government took steps to shut down Twitter, which was used to leak information about a government corruption scandal. Similar limitations on access to social media have been used at different times in Egypt, Syria, Iran and China. The United States has even proposed legislation to turn off all internet communications in the event of an as yet largely undefined state of emergency. 

‘Need to know’

But lies are only useful when they are believed to be true, which makes some recent steps undertaken by the US defence and intelligence communities to treat leaked information that is clearly true as lies are particularly hard to comprehend. As long ago as late 2010, the Pentagon forbade any employee from visiting the WikiLeaks site itself. The White House and the Air Force subsequently issued both an executive order and command guidelines advising employees against the use of either office or home computers to view sites that contained WikiLeaks derived information.

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The ban, which in its Air Force version initially even included family members, ironically confirmed that the information revealed by WikiLeaks was accurate. It also prevented many government employees from reading the New York Times, among other publications, which had unanticipated consequences. While the entire reading public presumably knew, for example, that in 2009 the United States had in violation of the 1946 United Nations convention initiated a spying campaign targeting the leadership of the UN, Pentagon intelligence analysts were presumably officially ignorant of that fact.

The unconvincing excuse provided by an Air Force spokesman to justify its draconian measures was that the classified information in the news articles would contaminate the unclassified computers being used to access the news sites, requiring that the computers be sanitised before they could be reused. In other words, information that has once been classified and is now in the public domain is still considered secret if it is pulled up on a US government computer and read by a government employee. Employees were also advised that they would receive a security violation if detected using home or personal computers to view classified material available on public sites because they had no “need to know” the information.

While few would argue that there are legitimate secrets, the flood of information revealed by WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden suggests that in some cases at least classification is used to conceal either illegal activity or actions that might widely be condemned as inappropriate if they had been revealed to the public. As a result, the belief that the US government mostly acts in the national interest has been replaced by a growing conviction that its own bureaucratic interests and those of the public it purportedly serves have largely diverged.

The latest attempt to clamp down on leaks of information flew under the media radar and was only reported nationally in a brief article that appeared in the New York Times on May 8. The Office of James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, issued in April an updated directive as part of its so-called “pre-publication review policy”, which requires employees and also many ex-employees to clear in advance speeches, articles, books and any other unofficial writing, including letters to newspaper editors.

Clapper, who is perhaps best known for his misleading testimony to Congress about the extent of the National Security Agency surveillance programme, has now banned current and former employees from including any references to news or media reports based on leaks of classified information. The reasoning? “The use of such information in a publication can confirm the validity of an unauthorised disclosure and cause further harm to national security.”

The new policy does not even permit mention of an article with the clearly stated intention of not confirming its validity or denying its claims. It is being widely seen as an attempt to discourage whistle blowers and is an expansion of the authority granted in a Clapper policy statement issued in March that forbade any substantive contact with journalists even if the information being discussed were unclassified, which would appear to be a clear violation of First Amendment rights.

Ironically, the sweeping ban also makes it impossible for former employees to debunk information in the public sector that is manifestly untrue, as they cannot even mention an article to deny its credibility. As one critic noted, government employees “can’t talk about what everyone in the country is talking about”.

And the information being protected is not even necessarily classified. The new guideline replaces the old standard of “protection of classified information” with preventing “the unauthorised disclosure of information”. How the intelligence agencies conduct their business – to include revelation of criminal fraud and waste – would also be covered by the non-disclosure rules, which are deliberately ambiguous to give the government a free hand to interpret what is or is not a violation.

The government claims that pre-publication review is not a closed door, that articles are frequently cleared after it is determined that there is no classified or “sensitive” content, but the reality is that writing critical of the intelligence community has historically suffered from a trying ordeal in the clearance process while pieces that praise the government are grandfathered through.

George Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence, researched his bookAt the Center of the Storm using classified documents in a secure room provided by a CIA contractor with the full cooperation of government agencies. Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA torture programme, also was able to have his book Hard Measures justifying his questionable decisions approved without any major redactions. Other authors, including Ishmael Jones, who have taken a more critical view have been hounded both by CIA and the Justice Department.

Philip Giraldi is a former military intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency officer who has worked on counter-terrorism in Europe and the Middle East. He is currently Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest .