WASHINGTON — A new policy bars employees of U.S. spy agencies from providing reporters with "intelligence information," even if it is unclassified, without first getting official permission.
Employees who violate the directive, which was issued on March 20 by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, face disciplinary action or firing.
Critics said the order adds to a climate in which intelligence agency employees face greater risk in trying to help the public understand what the government is doing.
The order results from congressional demands to plug intelligence leaks after media outlets in 2012 revealed the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment program, and a secret informant who had provided intelligence on the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
The directive was made public Monday by Steven Aftergood, who runs the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said the order codifies policies that already were in place at the CIA and other major intelligence agencies.
Turner said it was less restrictive than legislative language proposed in 2012 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. Feinstein later withdrew that language, however, and it did not become law.
"This came about because Congress said, `Hey, you've got to do something,' " Turner said.
The new policy is designed "to remind intelligence community employees that there are consequences for violating policy with regard to sensitive information," he added.
But Aftergood was sharply critical of the new rules.
"The new policy would have all news reporting on intelligence rely only on 'approved' sources,' " Aftergood said. "But sometimes, it's the 'unapproved' sources who can tell the real story."
Clapper's order prohibits disclosure of intelligence-related information, which includes "intelligence sources, methods, activities and judgments." It doesn't distinguish between classified and unclassified material.
It defines a journalist as anyone "engaged in the collection, production or dissemination to the public of information in any form related to topics of national security." The category is broad enough to include public interest activists, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or Aftergood's group.
"It will be harder for national security reporters to develop new sources, to receive news tips from insiders, and to discover and report on dissenting views within the intelligence community," Aftergood said. "The public will be deprived of all of the information it might have been able to learn."
Under a so-called insider threat program, intelligence agency employees are required to report "high-risk" behaviors among their coworkers that potentially could suggest a security threat.
Clapper has said he also plans to implement a system to subject those who hold security clearances to "continuous monitoring" of their communications to ensure they are not breaking the rules.