As those in the political class in Washington give piercing speeches about a spate of leaks of classified national security data, the nation's top intelligence official is quietly clamping down on would-be leakers.
Washington has been in a clamor for weeks in the wake of a list of news articles describing President Obama's personal list of suspected terrorists to target in drone attacks, and the roles of U.S. security agencies in developing computer viruses to cripple Iran's nuclear weapons program. Obama has ordered an investigation, and senior lawmakers are writing legislation that would put leakers of classified information behind bars.
Far away from the noise and smoke of the investigations and Capitol Hill press conference sound bites, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has issued new guidance aimed at identifying leakers and dissuading others in the intelligence community from joining their ranks.
The Clapper-signed instruction, obtained by U.S. News & World Report, puts in place a program under which intel agency personnel with access to classified data will be "continually evaluated and monitored."
Intelligence agency personnel also will be reminded of their "legal and administrative obligations and the ramifications of a failure to meet those obligations." That's lawyerly speak stating that anyone who leaks classified national secrets will be thrown in prison.
"Clapper is calling for new program of systemic monitoring of the entire classified population of the vast intelligence community," says Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "But I'm not sure that's practical. There are around 1 million people who have access to classified information. You would need another million to monitor that million."
The Clapper-signed instruction mentions "insider threats" in a sentence that calls for bolstering the "deterrence, detection and mitigation" of other threats like espionage and terrorism.
While Aftergood has his doubts about keeping tabs on all personnel with access to the nation's biggest secrets, he acknowledges "heightened scrutiny and internal surveillance is likely to have a deterrent effect on anyone who's contemplating contacts with the press."
That should placate commanders in chief and security hawks on Capitol Hill.
"Leaks of classified information have caused serious damage to our national security," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said last week. "They have put intelligence sources at risk, damaged our relationships with foreign partners, exposed ways of collecting valuable information, and put our adversaries on heightened alert. These leaks must stop."
Feinstein and the other leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees are holding secretive discussions about how best to craft a bill aimed at cracking down on national security leaks. A senior Senate aide says the bill could be ready by mid-July.
The intel committee leaders are discussing a list of issues, including giving government officials new powers to "identify and prosecute" government personnel who violate federal laws and non-disclosure agreements by sharing classified national security information, the senior aide says. The lawmakers also are discussing provisions authorizing enhanced investigations of unauthorized disclosures of such information, the aide says.
But as the Clapper order takes hold, and as Congress moves toward tougher leaks laws, government watchdog groups warn that cracking down on leakers could undercut the public's right to know what its government is up to abroad.
"It's not clear Congress needs to pass legislation. There are already criminal and civil penalties in place for making unauthorized disclosures of properly classified legislation," says Patrice McDermott, executive director at OpenTheGovernment.org. "While the goal of protecting legitimate secrets is honorable, poorly considered legislation could make it easier for people in the government to keep a lid on information that is embarrassing or proves illegality."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.