The CIA is pushing for an expansion of a 37-year-old law that would deter journalists from covering national security issues or reporting on leaked documents. Thanks to a disillusioned CIA case officer’s actions in 1975, there are currently a few limits to what can or can’t be reported about covert operatives working overseas.
In 1975, Philip Agee published a memoir about his years with the CIA. Attached to his memoir — which detailed his growing discontentment with the CIA’s clandestine support of overseas dictators — was a list of 250 CIA agents or informants. In response to this disclosure, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), which criminalized disclosing the identity of covert intelligence agents.
The IIPA did what it could to protect journalists by limiting the definition of “covert agent” to agents serving overseas and then only those who were currently working overseas when the disclosure occurred. It also required the government to show proof the person making the disclosure was “engaged in a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose” covert agents. The law was amended in 1999 to expand the coverage to include covert agents working overseas within five years of the disclosure.
Now, the CIA is seeking to strip these protections from the IIPA. The agency wants the “overseas” requirement removed, allowing it (and other intelligence agencies) to designate whoever they want as “protected” by the IIPA in perpetuity. The removal of the overseas requirement eliminates the five-year period. Disclosing identities years after the fact will now be a criminal act.
The CIA has its reasons, as Trevor Timm reports. But they’re the worst reasons.
Under the proposed law, any journalist who, say, revealed the names of “covert” CIA officers that had engaged in torture or ordered drone strikes on civilians would now be subject to prosecution — even if the newsworthy actions occurred years or decades prior or the officer in question has always been located in the United States.
In fact, the CIA explicitly referenced the revelations of the agency’s Bush-era torture program in its argument to Congress for IIPA expansion. The New York Times’s Charlie Savage obtained the CIA’s private memo in which it lobbied members of Congress. Under the memo’s “justification” section, the CIA wrote:
“Particularly with the lengths organizations such as WikiLeaks are willing to go to obtain and release sensitive national security information, as well as incidents related to past Agency programs, such as the RDI investigation, the original congressional reasoning mentioned above for a narrow definition of ‘covert agent’ no longer remains valid.”
RDI is the CIA’s preferred term for its torture program. It stands for “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation.” If the law is amended, the scope of its coverage expands, and the public gains nothing from it. Issues like drone strikes and torture programs need all the sunlight they can get. The CIA — and other intelligence agencies — would prefer the general public not know what’s being done in their name with their tax dollars.
Unfortunately, someone who has stood up for the press for years is allowing this amendment — attached to the 2020 budget bill — to move forward. Rep. Adam Schiff — the co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press — has done nothing to push back against this expansion of the IIPA.
Here, Schiff has a direct means to protect journalists from what’s sure to be a clear and present danger: He could refuse to insert the provision the CIA has requested into the intelligence bill. Instead, at least so far, he’s done the complete opposite.
As Timm points out, Schiff may be big on press freedom, but he’s even bigger on surveillance state boosterism.
Sadly, when you take a good look at his record, Schiff has always favored the secrecy of intelligence agencies over journalists’ rights. Just a few weeks ago, he pushed Democrats to vote down a bill that would cut funding for one of the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs that collect Americans’ data without warrants.
If this amendment becomes law, reporting on covert activities will be something only criminals do. It will make it that much easier to punish journalists for printing facts. This comes at a time when the presidential administration has expressed open hostility towards journalists and the act of journalism and the Commander-in-Chief has called for the return of torture programs. Schiff — like all of our representatives — has a duty to protect the public from self-serving laws that encourage government misbehavior. Like far too many others, he’s apparently convinced the security of the nation is more important than the people residing in it.