NSA strives to plug leaks

Employees may be required to search for disclosures

July 23, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency has mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign to root out disclosures to the news media, including a new policy that could require every agency employee to hunt for leaks, current and former intelligence officials said.

"There's been one leak after another, and [intelligence agencies] haven't responded as effectively as they would have liked," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "They're trying to set up a system that will be quick-moving, effective and responsive."

Some security analysts and former NSA officials warned that requiring agency employees to regularly search for leaks could divert attention from their regular duties. They also raised concerns that it could place people who pursue information through legitimate channels under suspicion.

NSA spokesman Don Weber characterized NSA's news media policy as "not a new policy" but "a revised [and] updated policy."

The policy, issued March 20, is apparently the first dedicated solely to news media leaks. The last time NSA visited the issue was as a small part of an "annex" to a 1992 directive on information security, which described the information that should be included when assembling a "damage assessment" of a news media disclosure.

A copy of the new policy, which is unclassified but labeled "For Official Use Only," and unclassified portions of the 1992 policy were obtained by The Sun.

Weber said the policy did not represent a stepping-up of anti-leak efforts because "we've always had a strong effort."

"Was it timely?" he added. "Certainly."

Recent disclosures of classified and sensitive information - including newspaper reports on secret CIA prisons, NSA's warrantless telephone surveillance program, government reviews of financial transactions and NSA's technology failures - have prompted calls for a crackdown on leaks from the White House and from many congressional Republican leaders, as well as intelligence agency heads. The NSA policy directs agency employees to "actively monitor the media for the purpose of identifying unauthorized disclosures" of classified information. It requires that all divisions within the agency produce annual reports on the number of classified leaks they uncover.

Such directives create pressure to identify more leaks, said Matthew Aid, a former NSA analyst who is writing a multivolume history of the agency.

"Instead of hunting for spies within the agency, now you're hunting for disenchanted employees who may know somebody who knows a reporter," he said. "It's bound to divert resources and focus."

Some NSA veterans and security analysts said the policy imposes new responsibilities on employees.

"`Actively monitor' means they're supposed to go out, surf the Web and look for classified information, not report it when they find it," said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. "That amounts to a new tasking of every part of the organization to hunt for unauthorized disclosures."

One former NSA official called the directive "bizarre."

"We're going to turn all of NSA into a vast media monitor? That just strikes up these images of people with visors on reading the newspaper," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect business relationships. NSA employees "have got to have something better to do."

NSA's Weber said the policy does not amount to a new requirement for employees to search for leaks. "We're just asking employees to be alert," he said. "It doesn't mean put down your headsets and don't do mission."

Under the new policy, when an NSA employee identifies a possible leak, that person must forward it to the agency's information policy and legal offices.

If officials deem the leak of classified information to be "significant" - jeopardizing lives, intelligence sources, operations or foreign relations - they must notify the Departments of Justice and Defense and National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte's office.

Government watchdogs are concerned that the new policy also singles out those who file requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. They fear those people could come under suspicion as part of a leak investigation and could be accused of acting as an intermediary between the agency and the press.

The internal NSA directive lists a set of questions to help identify unauthorized disclosures, including whether any Freedom of Information requests have been made for the leaked information and, if so, who requested it. The 1992 policy asked whether the information had been requested through official channels, but did not refer to FOIA.

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