Re Problems with Prepublication Review

on December 31 | in Intelligence Reform

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Law professors Jack Goldsmith and Oona A. Hathaway have published an excellent series of pieces on the government’s prepublication review process—the approval process former government employees who have had access to classified material must go through before publishing. That process is intended to ensure classified information isn’t disclosed publicly.

Anyone who has gone through the process will tell you it has problems. According to Goldsmith and Hathaway:

The problems, in a nutshell,  are (a) the stated criteria for review go far beyond what is needed to identify classified information in a draft for publication, malady (b) the chilling effect of these standards is exacerbated by reviewers who broadly interpret their mandate, (c) the review process sometimes takes longer than the specified review periods, leaving authors in limbo and with no recourse, and (d) vague criteria give reviewers enormous discretion over what the public can see, again usually without effective recourse by authors.

Much of the writing featured on Overt Action goes through prepublication review.  That process, if not ideal, is at least workable for our purposes. The publication review board (PRB) staff often turns pieces around relatively quickly (even over the Christmas holiday) and with limited changes. The job of the PRB staff in different agencies is a thankless one, and we appreciate their work. It is my experience that when one is operating in good faith with the PRB – meaning not intentionally trying to publish information that could jeopardize national security but rather trying to publish something that is appropriate for public consumption – authors can find ways to successfully negotiate that process.

That said, I believe all of the criticisms levied against the PRB are valid.

Often, when I speak to prospective contributors about writing for Overt Action, one of the first questions they ask is about the prepublication review. Prospective contributors have sometimes had bad experiences, both in terms of the substance and timeliness of reviews. They are hesitant to write in the first place. They don’t understand what standards will be applied to their work and are rightly conservative when it comes to deciding what needs to go to the PRB for review. The result is a degree of both self-censorship goes beyond what is necessary to protect classified information.

Overt Action is founded on the idea that intelligence practitioners can provide a unique perspective that is currently lacking in public debate. That perspective can elevate the quality of discussion about intelligence, which is now central to every national security issue

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. Further, we hope to show by example that people with deep expertise on intelligence issues can contribute publicly without leaking classified information. The PRB, while serving a critical purpose, is a hindrance to these goals. In this respect, problems with the PRB don’t just infringe on the speech rights of individuals. They also make things harder for the intelligence community.


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