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National Intelligence Memorandum Outlines Steps Taken to Deter Classified Leaks to Media

A secrecy expert says stricter polygraph procedures will impoverish understanding of intelligence matters.

EXCLUSIVE: A memo sent to more than a dozen government agencies by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says a question added to lie detector tests will help deter leaks to the media. But one expert on government secrecy says the new policy is “shortsighted.”

The Obama administration stepped up its war on leaks of classified information to the media by ordering the intelligence community to enhance lie detector tests and expound to individuals who are interviewed during the security clearance process “the full meaning and implications” of an “unauthorized” disclosure to journalists, according to a memo signed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Truthout last December, declassified the three-page memorandum, “Deterring and Detecting Unauthorized Disclosures, Including Leaks to the Media, Through Strengthened Polygraph Programs,” and turned it over to us Monday.

The Clapper memorandum was distributed to more than a dozen government agencies with polygraph programs on July 13, 2012. It was released to Truthout during Sunshine Week, a celebration of transparency and open government.

“Unauthorized disclosures of classified information, including ‘leaks’ of classified information to the media, endanger vital intelligence sources and methods and damage international relationships,” states the memorandum, signed by Clapper last year at the height of a Congressional backlash against a series of leaks to the media. “Aggressive action is required to better equip United States Government elements to prevent unauthorized disclosures. In my role as Security Executive Agent, I am hereby standardizing how the topic of unauthorized disclosures is addressed during the polygraph interview process.”

ODNI announced last June that Clapper planned to implement a policy calling for intelligence agencies that administer a counterintelligence polygraph test to include a question about “unauthorized” leaks. Clapper acted after reports surfaced in publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Associated Press about the United States and Israel’s cyberattacks on Iran and an alleged al-Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on a jetliner bound for the United States.

The Justice Department launched an investigation last June into the leaks, and Congress held a hearing a month later on the matter. The White House was accused by Republican lawmakers of being the source of the leaks to the media in an attempt to shore up President Obama’s reelection bid.

Clapper’s memorandum noted that the CIA already has a process in place in their polygraph examinations related to “unauthorized disclosures.” He ordered the rest of the intelligence community to duplicate this effort.

“During the pre-test discussion, CIA specifically asks whether an individual has provided classified information or facilitated access to classified information to any unauthorized persons, to include the media, unauthorized U.S. persons, or foreign nationals,” Clapper’s memo says. “The polygraph process is also used to identify deliberate disclosures. To strengthen our collective practices, I am directing that agencies authorized to conduct polygraphs for security clearance-related purposes immediately incorporate into their polygraph process a pre-test dialogue on unauthorized disclosures that includes an equivalent level of detail.”

Clapper’s memo went on to say government agencies that conduct polygraphs were ordered to explicitly define “unauthorized disclosures” of classified information during the exam phase and cite the following three bullet points to subjects who take lie detector tests:

  • “Unauthorized recipient” includes any U.S. person or foreign national without a need to know or not cleared at the appropriate level for the information, include any member of the media.
  • “Unauthorized disclosure” means a communication, confirmation, acknowledgement, or physical transfer of classified information, including the facilitation of, or actual giving, passing selling, keeping, publishing, or in any way making such information available, to an unauthorized recipient.
  • Classified information includes information classified at any level, including Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret.

“This policy will serve as a strong deterrent to would-be leakers while reinforcing the values of all the dedicated intelligence personnel who exemplify the highest standards of professionalism,” Clapper wrote.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, was somewhat critical of the new polygraph policy, calling it a “shortsighted approach.”

“I think it’s an unfortunate development because it is likely to deter not only egregious disclosures of classified information but also routine contacts between intelligence community employees and the press,” said Aftergood, who received a copy of Clapper’s memo Tuesday in response to his own FOIA. “In order to avoid an unfavorable polygraph exam, many people will simply avoid any exchanges with reporters or other members of the public. That’s regrettable, because it will needlessly impoverish public awareness and understanding of intelligence matters. And I think it’s unnecessary, but it’s a foreseeable result of the ongoing anti-leak furor.”

In her column, “The Danger of Suppressing Leaks,” published in The New York Times Saturday, public editor Margaret Sullivan asked her readers to imagine if American citizens “never learned about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the brutal treatment of terror suspects” at CIA black site prisons, “the drone program that is expanding under President Obama, or the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.”

“This is a world without leaks,” Sullivan wrote. “And a world without leaks … may be the direction we’re headed in.”

Times reporter Declan Walsh told Sullivan leaks are “the unfiltered lifeblood of investigative journalism.”

“They may come from difficult, even compromised sources, be ridden with impurities and require careful handling to produce an accurate story. None of that reduces their importance to journalism,” Walsh said.

Aftergood said that although the science behind polygraph examinations is “shaky,” “there is no doubt that it serves as a potent device for instilling and reinforcing workplace discipline, including strict nondisclosure practices.”

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