NEWS + ADVICE
Media and the Intelligence Community, AFCEA EPIC Series
Though the panel and topic were picked months ago, the AFCEA Emerging Professionals in the Intelligence Community (EPIC) session on the “Media and the Intelligence Community” was timely.
The event was hosted at Altamira Technologies and sponsored by Microsoft, featuring a distinguished panel moderated by Shane Harris, Foreign Policy magazine Senior Writer, discussing the give and take between the intelligence community and the media. The panelists included Dave Burpee, former National Geospatial Agency Public Affairs Officer, Bill Harlow, former Central Intelligence Agency Chief Spokesman, JJ Green, WTOP National Security Correspondent, and Brynn Koeppen, WashingtonExec magazine Editor-in-Chief.
Harris, author of “The Watchers,” which details the rise of the modern surveillance state, shared key questions with the panel:
- * How do you balance the public’s desire to know the details behind intelligence activities with the need to protect the details of those activities?
- * How are leaks handled as well as investigated by the Intelligence Community (IC)?
- * Major news networks have at times incorrectly reported information in social media. How do the IC public affairs offices mitigate the risk of incorrect information being shared in social or traditional media?
The panelists were in agreement that when a story is brought to a journalist it’s the journalist’s responsibility to vet the story and to evaluate its value. Most agreed that the story should be checked with government contacts if it may have national security implications.
All agreed the story should be reported for its value to inform rather than to just share a story. Green put it succinctly,
“News is not what people are talking about. It’s what they don’t know. It’s my job as a journalist to find out what they don’t know and inform them.”
The two government panelists said it is difficult to be constantly criticized in the media with the resulting effect that has on employee morale. Many in the public are outraged at surveillance while also wondering why some terrorist incidents aren’t avoided. Both referenced General Alexander’s workforce memo to the National Security Agency / Central Security Service that the leadership will take the heat so they can focus on the mission.
Convincing leadership as well as the media that there are good and interesting stories to share is a challenge as well. Getting those stories told requires building relationships within and outside the community. One such great story is Argo.
The common term “off the record” was discussed at length, with the bottom line being that nothing is off the record. The panelists shared how Bob Woodward was very good at using well-honed journalistic techniques to parlay “off the record” information into teasing out information from other sources.
Green also responded to a question about information assurance from the audience that all journalists are aware that they are targets of hackers and that they have several responsibilities to protect their information for individual and national security. Shane Harris shared that when he is reporting in China he does not take any of his devices.
‘With the rise of hacking,” Harris quipped, “You’ll be seeing more face-to-face meetings on park benches.”
The bottom line is building relationships and trust between the media and the intelligence community, which has evolved over decades. Howell pointed out it doesn’t take decades to understand a relationship and its value. As a coaching point to the emerging professionals in the audience, Howell said it’s not just the one-on-one interaction between professionals, it’s how you prepare, how you interact, and your follow-up actions that will make or break your relationships in the community.