State Dept. Memo To End Leaks Promptly Leaks To The Media

from the grilled-leaks dept

The phone calls are coming from inside the house, it seems. The newly minted Trump government has suffered under one of the most porous climates in recent Presidential memory, with leaks leaking to the press from seemingly everywhere. This is happening for several reasons, which include enabling technology for such leaks to occur, the controversial nature of our current President and some of his actions, and the fact that, whatever else one might want to say about President Trump, his administration is certainly active, meaning there is much more about which to leak. This has led to Trump, along with members of his team, making strange noises about a crackdown of these leaks. The threats incorporated in this crackdown have included FBI investigations (where many of the leaks have come from), random phone checks by the communications staff with Sean Spicer playing Angry Dad, and the promise of the purging of any longstanding government staffers suspected of leaking information to the press.

And, yet, the leaks persist. And they often persist in laughable ways. We already had Spicer’s phone-check and leak-plugging emergency meeting with his staff leak to the press. Now the Washington Post has an article all about the State Department’s memo that warned State staff against leaking anything to the press.

The State Department legal office prepared a four-page memo for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning of the dangers of leaking by State Department employees. It promptly leaked, to me. That’s only the latest sign that the relationship between the Trump administration political appointees and the State Department professional workforce is still very much a work in progress.

The Feb. 20 memo by State Department acting legal adviser Richard Visek to Tillerson is entitled “SBU: Protecting Privileged Information.” The SBU stands for Sensitive But Unclassified, a designation used on documents that are not technically secret but also not supposed to be shared. The memo itself is marked SBU and begins with detailed explanation of how and when Tillerson has the privilege of protecting certain types of information from public disclosure, such as anything that has to do with internal State Department deliberations. But the bulk of the memo is devoted to arguments for clamping down on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information, also known as leaking.

One can only hope that whoever leaked the memo to the Washington Post chuckled to themselves as they did so — so tasty the irony was. Look, it’s understandable why a White House or government would be irritated by press leaks. But trying to wage some kind of war against them is only going to result in the administration looking very, very foolish, as it does in this story. Leaks have always been a thing in government. They always will be. Trump can shake his fist angrily at the clouds all he wants, but the rain will still come. Even Tillerson’s admittedly tightened grip over the State Department isn’t going to help.

Several State Department officials told me that they see evidence of an effort by Tillerson to stymie leaking is already underway. For example, detailed readouts of Tillerson’s meetings with foreign officials are no longer distributed widely inside the building, leaving officials in relevant bureaus unsure exactly what transpired. Another official told me Tillerson has shortened the list of officials allowed inside the daily 9:15 a.m. senior staff meeting, which has previously served as a key channel through which various State Department offices and bureaus learn about the day’s agenda and get direction from the secretary’s office. A third State Department official told me he was instructed to make requests for policy information and guidance over the phone or in person, rather than commit any policy discussions to an email that might be leaked.

Making government less efficient in the interest of plugging leaks works against good government operations and obviously isn’t solving the problem.

And, like so many things Trump, there’s no consistency in his anger on the topic. Trump was perfectly happy to discuss leaks from the DNC while on the campaign trail. In addition to that, members of both his campaign team and his administration are known to regularly leak information to the press for the purposes of steering media discussion in the President’s favor. As with so many things, it’s fine if Team Trump does it, but not anyone else.

Regardless, it sure will be fun to watch the White House attempt to keep press leaks from being a thing. After all, if you can’t even keep the memos about not leaking from leaking, the really good stuff is almost sure to come out.

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Comments on “State Dept. Memo To End Leaks Promptly Leaks To The Media”

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73 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

the fact that, whatever else one might want to say about President Trump, his administration is certainly active, meaning there is much more about which to leak.

This has long been one of my observations about American politics: Democrats are, generally speaking, well-meaning but ineffective, whereas Republicans really know how to get things done, but the things they get done tend to be horrifying!

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Horrifying things getting done

Hmmm… maybe you guys can be more specific. When I think of horrifying, I think of things like the Extrajudicial Detention and Torture Program (which was started by Bush and continued by Obama) or the Drone Strike program that massacres entire villages of civilians (started by Obama. Bush sent in private security contractors, aka mercenaries do do his massacring).

There’s also the NSA mass surveillance thing, which was going in 2003 (Bush) became fully operational on Obama’s watch and hasn’t really slowed down even after the Snowden revelations. I’d have thought Obama would have restricted or dismantled it, but he dug too deep and too greedily, I guess.

The thing is, Trump isn’t slowing any of these things down and in fact has expressed eagerness to step these policies up.

(Actually Trump hasn’t talked about — and may not yet be fully aware of — the massive NSA intelligence-gathering complex. I’m quaking in my boots terrified of the day Trump realizes he can use this agency to start identifying and mass-disappearing dissenters, and there will be nothing we can do to stop him.)

In the meantime, Trump’s agenda seems to be to dismantle some pretty important federal programs: environmental protection and conservation, clean air and water, education, labor and consumer affairs, social security, welfare, foreign aid…

In fact, he seems to want to dismantle everything except the police and military. If this wasn’t the United States of America, our nation being categorically exceptional and above such things, I’d say he’s prepping for a coup d’état.

Trump is also ratcheting up persecution of immigrants, including many who are here with legal documentation. Also including many non-whites that look too immigranty (since we citizens are not required to carry or own proof of citizenship). Also poor people that CBP or ICE just doesn’t like very much. Right now, despite the suspension of the travel ban, we’re still seeing an increase of detentions at the borders. Also raids on families who (to Trump, and possibly only to Trump) qualify as bad hombres.

Trump is also halting asset forfeiture reform, so that law enforcement can continue to rob Americans at will at a rate higher than all the burglaries in the US.

I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that thermonuclear holocaust may be an improbable horror, despite that Trump has expressed specific interest in modernizing and utilizing the US thermonuclear stockpiles. But, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who moved their doomsday clock up by thirty seconds on account of one man in power (to 2:30 to midnight) are less optimistic than I am.

So in comparison to these, I’m curious what horrors Democrats have recently (since 1990) unleashed upon the unsuspecting population of the US?

Easier abortion access and gay marriage, maybe?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Horrifying things getting done

“So in comparison to these, I’m curious what horrors Democrats have recently (since 1990) unleashed upon the unsuspecting population of the US?”

your bias won’t let you understand.

Each party builds upon the sins of each other, while whipping you sycophants into a frenzy. You are nothing but rabid attack dogs snarling and biting in the direction your “masters” point you.

Who is less guilty? The one who held the victim down, while the other murders them? Or the one that murders, while the other holds the victim down?

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Horrifying things getting done

“You are nothing but rabid attack dogs…”

Wow. You went from having a semi-rational viewpoint all the way to obnoxious in just one step. Way to trash your own argument. Me, I quite liked Uriel-238’s well-balanced and thought invoking post so I’m voting it “Insightful”.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Horrifying things getting done

Some of us appear to have fallen into the trap of characterising the Dems as “left” and the GOP as “right.” This is not the case. The Obama administration was basically neocon with a bit of red meat being thrown to the base from time to time, e.g. gay marriage, Obamacare. Heck, even the Affordable Care Act came out of Heritage and many Republicans are fine with gay marriage.

This explains why the awful programs begun by Bush were continued (and in some cases made worse) by Obama. Let’s stop playing partisan games here. I’m not going to weigh the sins of each party to find out which was worse; they’ve either let us down or they haven’t. Start there.

Now let’s stop fighting and learn to work together. There’s work to be done pushing back against mass surveillance, asset forfeiture, and other things we’re upset about.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: well-meaning but ineffective

A statement is either true or it’s not. The ACA either provided insurance for people who previously couldn’t gain coverage or it couldn’t. Cuba either has had relations opened with it or it doesn’t. Iran either agreed to a nuclear deal or it didn’t.

We can argue the flaws in these policies if we want to but that’s a different conversation. Actually, it’s three different conversations. Fact.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: When more than their egos are hurt

Why wouldn’t people be laughing at Trump and co running around like they’re trying to fix a busted dam by sticking sand in the holes?

When a given leak does more than simply make them look foolish, then that particular leak can be addressed as crossing the line, but as it stands you’ve got people that really should know better acting like fools and rightly being laughed at for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What is the limit?

Some days, it seems like leaks are the the only kind of transparency we get out of our government. I’ll laugh at Trump having to lie in the bed he’s made. But if it takes an atrocity to force accountability then that’s the price of it. I expect to see lots of it too, since Trump’s behaviour is so toxic to the entire D.C. ecosystem. Anyone who has to live there or who has a long term political career will be leaking as much as they can to stay in each other’s good graces and neuter Trump at every opportunity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Serious op-sec needed

Some serious op-sec overhauls are needed.

Check you personal phones at the door, you’ll get it back when you leave at the end of the day.

No papers taken home.

No electronic storage devices taken home.

Official messaging is only handled via official channels.

If you need a cellphone to preform your job function then you will be assigned a cellphone owned by the govt agency you work for.

No personal business on company owned computers or phones.

Feeding suspected leakers altered or false information in an effort to ferret out and confirm who’s leaking.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Serious op-sec needed

Good points, and I pretty much agree. However I can see a parallel to the blanket NSA/GCHQ spying on everyone. The “bad hombres” just use encryption and thus avoid detection, whilst everyone else suffers by having their privacy trashed.

Here, the bad hombre will keep his silenced phone in his sock, a boot stick in his trouser pocket, and a filing cabinet in his junglies. Everyone else suffers with having reduced contact with their friends and families, a reduced ability to work from home, having their privacy invaded…

Let’s not forget that Edward Snowden (a good hombre) waltzed out of the NSA with what must have been a wagon load of material. And you’d have expected their opsec to be tip-top.

Anonmylous says:

Oh I hope he really did this!!!

“A third State Department official told me he was instructed to make requests for policy information and guidance over the phone or in person, rather than commit any policy discussions to an email that might be leaked.”

Did… did he really just set himself up to take total responsibility for everything his underlings do because they have it in writing now that all orders issued will be verbal from now on? Is he really that short-sighted?

“But Secretary Tillerson ordered us to release those documents, Mr President!”

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Oh I hope he really did this!!!

As an admin worker I can confirm that poor record keeping and information management and flow is the bane of every business. If you can’t get those on straight, expect a mess.

One of my daily tasks is purchase invoice queries. What causes those? Some jerk put the wrong figures in for the supplier costs and left out the quote reference. Tracing that information back to source takes hours out of my working day. Now scale that up to national government level. Enjoy dysfunction.

Random Citizen says:

Normally I don’t get involved in these sort of conversations.

The two of y’all stop it.

Have the members of either side of the aisle considered that you look like idiots & this is very probably the reason that we’re in this mess!?

Both sides continually point fingers instead of trying to find things that they agree on. You’re as bad as religions, with comments like “My side is right & your side is EVIL” & “The other side HATES THE CHIIIILLLLDREN but my side will save them.”

It’s high time that we start acting like adults. No, we don’t always agree. Sometimes we feel strongly about certain subjects (whether the subjects are really THAT important is a separate discussion). There may be people we don’t like.

Guess what? That’s life.

The fact that this is happening is an insult to the American people & the world at large. You are too busy trying to one up each other to actually get anything helpful done. Both sides are pulling against each other & as a consequence we get nowhere.

Start learning to have thoughtful discussions, compromise, & work on the things you can agree on. The reason there are so many of you is that you have ideals – work on them & don’t force them on others that don’t agree.

Otherwise, you just look inadequite & pointless.

// End rant. I will now go back to lurking. Flame me as you will

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Where were you eight years ago … thirty, forty years ago?

This is nothing new, it’s not a fad, it is human nature and humans are not going to evolve into super understanding beings in this sort of environment. In fact, humans seem to be devolving back toward their caveman ways … is this the “Great” as in make america great again? Fun times

Anonymous Coward says:

If you are trying to encourage people to disobey or overthrow the government that is called sedition. I would like to see three viable parties in our nation, but one of the only two we have seems committed to self destruction. Bunch of hypocrites. Funny to hear V. Putin called a killer but not B. Obama. I guess what is left of the future is left to those of us willing to get our hands dirty, or bloody as the case may be.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Funny to hear V. Putin called a killer but not B. Obama.

This is false equivalence.

Obama was responsible for killings, including the killing of civilians in drone strikes. This is utterly awful and it deserves to be condemned.

But it’s not the same thing as covertly poisoning his critics.

Yes, they’re both killers. But context and details are important.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: To be fair, I would have rathered if Obama used poison.

Drone Strikes qualify as targeted killings which is a policy the US developed in the 80s when we were tired of our no-assassinations policy.

The story goes, we tried one too many times to assassinate Fidel Castro and decided after the blowback that we weren’t going to target individuals anymore.

But that lead us to the slightly different policy of targeting them anyway, only instead of one skilled guy with a mean rifle, we’d send an airstrike. It didn’t work then. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi survived the strike on his house (though he lost family and personal employees), but Reagan thought it was funny, and it became unofficial policy… until it became official policy.

The problem with assassination is that it becomes too tempting to use it for personal enemies, or for enemies of the current administration. This is how Putin uses assassination. (Then he uses crazy poisons like fucking polonium-210 which left a radioactive trail from Litvinenko to the Port of London, and also exposed assassins Lugovoy and Kovtun to dangerous levels of radiation. But I digress.)

Assassination is a great tool to clear military targets or belligerent commanders when war is imminent, but it shouldn’t be used to resolve personal vendettas, and maybe that’s the problem is it’s too tempting.

But then we shouldn’t be resorting to targeted killings and pretending that they’re anything but super-messy assassinations.

anonymous cowherd says:

Just do what the Democrats did...

Start cracking down and punishing leakers with gusto. Put enough of them in prison and you will dry up the well.

Say you want to be “transparent” and then shut down everything unless someone goes to court with a FOIA request, after years of obfuscation.

As an extreme, you could go full on Hillary Clinton and consider “drone striking” particularly troublesome individuals…

Or, you could just make a lot of noise and use the leakers to prove your point about the opposition media while doing everything that needs doing in the background…

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