The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed. — Walter Pincus





In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.

The closest we recalled is the old rule of “plausible deniability,” which came out of the CIA in the 1950s, after President Dwight Eisenhower had to backtrack after publicly denying knowledge of the intelligence purpose of U-2 flights over Russia after one was shot down. Plausible deniability, in CIA rhetoric, was an approach that allowed a president to deny knowledge of an intelligence operation that went bad by saying he knew nothing about it, leaving those carrying out the activity to take the blame for failure or exposure.

Then there was the “Webster Rule,” named for then-CIA Director Judge William Webster, which held that operations, especially covert action, must be clearly supportive of U.S. policy if exposed and evoke a public reaction of “good for us.”

Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.

There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.

For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.

Like the previously mentioned Front-Page Rule, former intelligence officials shake their head over the idea that worry about exposure has become so great that the panel is proposing establishment of a Sensitive Activities Office within the Office of Director of National Intelligence to “review collection activities for ‘sensitive’ activities on an ongoing basis.”

Underlying this idea is that intelligence-collection managers “might not always be aware that what they are doing or planning might fall into a category that makes it sensitive in the eyes of policymakers,” such as head-of-state meetings or negotiations.

Both policymakers and intelligence-collection managers would be included, but the office staff would also have non-security representatives from the commercial side of government — reflecting, I assume, concerns voiced by Internet and telecommunication companies to the current NSA disclosures.

The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 [a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists], we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”

The disclosure that the NSA has targeted the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other national leaders has the president’s board recommending more caution in undertaking such efforts, but it argues that it be undertaken “with great care.”





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