Seminar Materials Included NSA-Approved, Edited Versions of Stories
The National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly hosted “off-the-record” seminars for journalists between 2002 and 2004 to limit intelligence leaks and to caution reporters about revealing information about the agency’s electronic surveillance work.
The New York Sun reported on Sept. 27, 2007 that during the seminars, high-ranking NSA officials demonstrated to reporters that they could rewrite articles, omitting details about the agency’s techniques, without sacrificing the “overall thrust” of the articles. The NSA officials edited stories from USA Today, The New York Times and Knight Ridder that detailed previous intelligence breakthroughs, proposing that substituted language or an “innocuous rewrite” would reveal less about the agency’s spying techniques.
The Sun obtained draft course outlines for the seminars through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding leaks about NSA intercepts that may have contained information about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Sun article did not identify journalists who had attended the seminars. Mediabistro.com blog “Fishbowl DC,” which covers Washington, D.C. media, asked any journalists who had attended the seminar to contact them in a September 27 posting. Manhattan gossip and media news blog Gawker.com featured a posting on October 2 speculating that the fact that no journalist had come forward to claim attendance at one of the seminars indicated that they had probably signed confidentiality agreements in order to participate.
According to the Sun, the half-day seminars were labeled “SIGINT 101,” a title that represents NSA shorthand for signals intelligence, a type of intelligence-gathering method requiring interception of signals between people, machines, or both. An agency spokeswoman told the Sun that the seminars were held a number of times between 2002 and 2004.
The seminars were held at Fort Meade, Md. and were apparently meant to help reporters understand the damage that could be caused by press leaks of intelligence. The syllabus released to the Sun stated: “Course Objective: to convey the fragility of SIGINT and to increase editors’ and reporters’ understanding that there are other ways to express similar thoughts in an article without compromising the story and without compromising SIGINT.”
According to the syllabus, presenters included the director of the NSA, Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA’s general counsel, Robert Deitz, and the head of signals intelligence, Maureen Baginski. Baginski, who is no longer an NSA employee, told the Sun that she could not remember being a part of such seminars. When the class content and rewriting of articles was described to her, she “chuckled and said, ‘it’s an interesting approach.’”
In an attempt to instill a “chummy” atmosphere into one seminar, according to the Sun, journalists were treated to tea and pastries and shown a clip from the movie “Top Gun.” The syllabus instructed officials to enlist reporters in the agency’s attempt to shield its intelligence. “Reporters go to great lengths to protect their sources, as do we,” said one talking point. “We need your help.” According to the syllabus, journalists were also to be forbidden from taking notes during one discussion.
Articles that were identified as problematic by the NSA and rewritten during the seminars included a 1999 USA Today article by Jack Kelley on the use of a satellite to intercept Osama bin Laden’s telephone calls; a Knight Ridder article from 1998 reporting that interception of signals from Osama bin Laden’s communications network had confirmed his involvement in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and a 1998 New York Times story reporting that eavesdropping on bin Laden’s conversations had yielded intelligence about a possible attack on American interests in the Persian Gulf.
The language that the NSA had proposed to substitute for the damaging information in the articles had been included in the syllabus, but was deleted in the copy provided to the Sun.
Reporter Neely Tucker, who wrote the Knight Ridder story, told the Sun that he was never invited to an NSA seminar and did not know that the Agency had considered his story damaging.
The seminars were concluded in 2004, according to NSA spokeswoman Marci Green, because of staffing changes in the NSA’s public affairs department.
The Sun noted that in 2005, the Bush administration adopted a more openly confrontational stance towards news media leaks. This renewed opposition was initiated by a New York Times story published in that year on the secret program for wiretapping of telephones. (See “New York Times Held Story About Domestic Spying Program Over a Year” in the Winter 2006 issue of the Silha Bulletin.) Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stated that he would consider the possibility of prosecuting journalists for writing stories based on leaked intelligence.
- Amba Datta, Silha Research Assistant