A Lesson From the Senate in How Not to Stop Leaks


California senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would ban background briefings by analysts who work for intelligence agencies:

Under the Senate bill, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be allowed “to provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”

The term “background” typically means that a source can be identified broadly by his or her government position but not by name. The bill would not prevent analysts from speaking on the record, but they are rarely allowed to be identified because of security concerns.

The provision is part of a series of anti-leak measures included in an authorization bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The crackdown is fueled by frustration over recent articles that disclosed details of U.S. counterterrorism operations and cyber-penetrations of Iran.

Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.

This is, as Reuters foreign correspondent Missy Ryan tweeted, “ominous.” And it’s ominous for a variety of reasons. First, nobody gets leaks from background briefings. Second, it’s a dumb overreaction to a problem that’s been around forever. Third, it will likely do nothing to slow down national security leaks. And fourth, it suggests that Feinstein and others are perfectly happy to ignore the real problem in favor of vapid showboating.

In other words, it’s the United States Senate at work. It’s good to see that some traditions never die.

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