Keeping Secrets Safe: The Publications Review Board
All CIA officers, as a condition of employment, sign the standard CIA secrecy agreement when entering on duty. All contractors sign a secrecy agreement that is consistent with the terms and conditions of their contract. A secrecy agreement doesn’t oblige officers and contractors to absolute silence, but it does require them to keep national security secrets for as long as the US Government deems the information to be classified. This is a lifelong obligation. In order to help avoid the damage to national security and to the Agency’s mission that disclosing classified information would inflict, the CIA created the Publications Review Board (PRB) to preview materials produced by CIA personnel– former and current (both employees and contractors) – to determine if they contain such classified information before they are shared with publishers, blog-subscribers, a TV audience, ghost-writers, co-authors, editors, family members, assistants, representatives, or anyone else not authorized to receive or review such classified information.
What Must Be Submitted to the PRB?
Current and former CIA officers and contractors who have signed the standard CIA secrecy agreement are required to submit to the PRB any and all materials they intend to share with the public that are intelligence related, such as materials that mention the CIA or intelligence activities, or that concern topics to which they had access to classified information while employed at or performing contractual work for CIA. This submission requirement extends beyond the sub-set of topics they may have had immediate responsibility for on a day-to-day basis.
Publishing: Publishing is more than having a printing house bind copies of a book. It means communicating by any means (including orally or electronically), information regardless of form to any person or entity other than the CIA’s PRB or a US Government official authorized by the CIA to receive such information for prepublication review. This encompasses materials including but not limited to: book reviews, Op-ed pieces, scholarly papers, scripts, screenplays, blogs, speeches, and other materials. Thus, material covered by a CIA Secrecy Agreement requiring prepublication review must be submitted and approved prior to discussing the material with or showing it to individuals such as a publisher, co-author, agent, editor, ghost-writer, personal representative, family member, or assistant.
Relating to CIA or intelligence activities: Not everything former and current CIA officers and contractors write requires prepublication review. For example, the prepublication requirement does not apply to material such as gardening, wine tasting, stamp collecting, sports and so forth, because they are outside of the purview of the CIA mission or intelligence. However, commentary on matters such as intelligence operations or tradecraft (even fictional works), foreign intelligence, foreign events of intelligence interest, one’s career, scientific or technological developments discussed in an intelligence context, and other topics that touch upon CIA interests or responsibilities need PRB approval.
Why Do Materials Need To Be Reviewed?
In addition to protecting national security, the PRB is also protecting CIA officers and contractors from legal liability. For instance, one may unwittingly share insights on events and capabilities that are thought to be public knowledge, but in fact have not been officially released by the CIA or the US Government. Accidental disclosure is still disclosure, and opens a person up to possible civil or criminal penalties. The PRB helps current and former CIA officers and contractors avoid this by identifying problematic material and working with them to find ways to make their points, while avoiding classified information disclosure. For instance, PRB staff often compare declassified material found at the FOIA Reading Room and CIA.gov with materials submitted for review.
What Kind Information Might Be Classified?
As outlined in Executive Order 13526 (sec. 1.4), the following categories of information may be classified if unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security:
- military plans, weapons systems, or operations;
- foreign government information;
- intelligence activities (including covert action), intelligence sources or methods, or cryptology;
- foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources;
- scientific, technological, or economic matters relating to the national security;
- United States Government programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;
- vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects, plans, or protection services relating to the national security; or
- the development, production, or use of weapons of mass destruction.
In combination with these criteria, authors are encouraged to ask the following questions during the writing process to get an idea of what information the PRB is protecting:
“As worded, does the text reveal classified information? Why is this information classified [or not]?”
“Would releasing this information damage national security or harm CIA’s intelligence sources and methods?”
Some individual pieces of information may not cause national security damage when standing alone, but can do so if compiled with other information. Also, the PRB is not authorized to release official records or text from Government documents. Individuals seeking such information may submit a FOIA or Privacy Act Request using the procedures found here and here, respectively.
The PRB exists to help protect against unauthorized disclosures, but ultimately, each CIA officer or contractor is responsible for protecting any classified information they possess. Should a CIA officer or contractor publish materials that contain classified information – either because they did not comply with the PRB’s changes or because they chose to bypass the PRB process by not submitting their manuscript for PRB pre-publication review – they could be subject to possible civil and criminal penalties. Cooperating with pre-publication review helps keep CIA officers, contractors, and the Agency safe.
Former Agency officers and contractors who need to contact the PRB regarding items to be reviewed can do so through the Contact CIA page. (If using the web form, please be sure to fill out the form completely, including your full legal name and email address where you can be reached).