The Intel Community Needs A Better Media Strategy

CIA Director John Brennan during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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CIA Director John Brennan during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.

As press watchdogs stiffen their spines, intel agencies must decide what secrets truly need protecting and why.

“Give me a compelling reason.” That’s what Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, says he tells the intelligence community when its leaders or media affairs personnel ask him to refrain from printing a national security story.

Baquet was explaining his controversial decision to publish the names of three senior undercover CIA officers in an April article, “Deep Support in Washington for C.I.A.’s Drone Missions.” The case exemplifies the clash of two fundamental American principles: protecting national security secrets and serving the public’s right to know. The case also underscores the media’s increasing aggressiveness in holding the intelligence community accountable to the public, and the need for the IC to do more to engage the press. While “the media”—however that is defined in an increasingly fragmented, segmented digital and print landscape—may have certain responsibilities to the public, there are limitations on how much the government can “‘manage”’ it. Rather, it’s the government, as the leaky protectors of secrets, that must craft a better strategy to engage the media than deploying the shopworn phrases “neither confirm nor deny” and “don’t publish this or people will die.”

The Times’ reporters originally justified revealing the names of senior undercover officers thusly: “The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”  

Neither part of this argument holds up well as a justification. First, meeting with foreign governments is fundamental part of most intelligence officers’ jobs. In our former capacity as counterterrorism analysts, we met dozens of foreign officials every year, which didn’t make what we discussed any less secret or sensitive. If being known to a foreign government was a reason to have one’s cover blown, almost every intelligence officer could be publicly named in the press. The Times’ justification displays a junior high school-level understanding of how intelligence works, and it puts the U.S. at a grave disadvantage to other countries. After all, Russia, China, France, Israel, etc. wouldn’t deliberately shred its officers’ cover to satisfy some newspaper’s naïve worldview.

Second, the group of people who “hold a senior position over a significant paramilitary program” is fairly large. It seems an arbitrary and political rationale for exposing an undercover officer that, if it becomes the rule, would keep many qualified people who wish to remain undercover from rising into leadership.

Yet it seems the CIA didn’t made a particularly compelling case against publishing the names.  Cover is critical for an officer who serves overseas in a covert capacity; public disclosure almost certainly precludes them from ever holding such a position again. The organization does not appear to have made that argument. This suggests the Agency decided they were not going to fight very determinedly to keep its officers’ identities secret—which is troubling for a variety of other reasons.

Even the group of 20 former directors and deputy directors who showed rare unanimous agreement in penning a reproachful letter to the Times didn’t offer a powerful rationale for maintaining cover for casual readers. They rightfully point out undercover officers face risks by having their cover blown, but don’t make their argument more specific than saying that the information “would reside forever on the Internet, searchable by any terrorist with a laptop…making the name accessible to ISIS, Al Qaeda and every other murderer on the planet.” True enough, but numerous American civilian and military officials have been publicly affiliated with aggressive operations against al Qaeda and ISIS. Absent specific information, the formerly undercover officers are in no greater danger than, say, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, John Brennan—or Dean Baquet for that matter. The CIA, and the IC in general, must do more to craft convincing arguments to protect its officers’ identities, and then go to the mat to protect its workforce.

The Times and Baquet make very clear the threshold for publishing secrets have shifted, and not in the IC’s favor. As the executive editor said, “CIA has not quite accepted that its role has changed…I don’t think they now understand that with the case of drones, when they run what is largely a military program, I don’t think you can make the same demands about secrecy.” He noted that the article in question was published to highlight the three officers’ alleged links to CIA’s divisive enhanced interrogation program, and how this suggests that the Agency has become a super-empowered intelligence bureaucracy that does what it pleases.

The American system, therefore, places the burden on the intelligence community to prevent the publication of names and other secrets. The IC should take several steps if it wants to prevent further embarrassing disclosures. The first, of course, is to stop leaking so much. Most government officials with access to classified documents never talk to the press, but there are some, as we’ve noted before, who constantly provide sensitive information to the media for a variety of reasons—to advance a particular cause, to damage bureaucratic adversaries, to boost the ego. See, for example, the full-court press after a sensitive military strike killed ISIS’s Syria-based “CFO,” Abu Sayyaf. Or the time that a Saudi/British asset helped thwart an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot to destroy a passenger airplane with a sophisticated explosive. Unnamed U.S. intelligence officials could not wait to crow about it to the press.

It would be naïve for the IC to expect the press only to report the sensitive stories to its liking. More broadly, such leaks undermine the IC when it tries to take a principled stand against leaking certain types of information without providing a specific, compelling reason. The community needs to do better.

Another way the IC can do better is to realistically determine how much damage is done by leaks. If the New York Times isn’t well positioned to assess how much one particular story will hurt America’s national security, the IC also has an inherent bias towards overstating the prospective damage. Given that bias, it seems reasonable the IC be required to provide a sensible account of the damage likely to be caused by information the newspapers already have. And let’s be honest—many intelligence officials couldn’t explain why much of the information that passes across their computer monitor every day is classified.

The CIA—and the IC more broadly—also had better prepare more specific, compelling reasons to keep the identities of its senior officers secret. The Times has made it clear it aims to hold the community’s proverbial feet to the fire. As Baquet says quite plainly: The IC has to “make the case. You can’t just say that it hurts national security. You can’t just say vaguely that it’s going to get somebody killed.”

Conversely, the IC should expect the Times and other media outlets hold to that standard for the foreseeable future. It can continue to fight against leaks and the efforts of dogged investigative journalists by using an increasingly ineffective argument, or it can provide editors—most, we would hope, are as interested in protecting the freedoms we enjoy here in the U.S.—more compelling reasons not to push “publish.” 

May they find an acceptable compromise.

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