How to Craft a [REDACTED] Press Release (2013)

First, you start with a pithy, attention-grabbing headline.

DNI Clapper Declassifies Intelligence Community Documents Regarding Collection Under Section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)

Now that the news editors have sniffed the bait (and probably gagged), it’s time to get them to spit the hook. News editors see hundreds of press releases each day, all competing for attention. If you can deaden the first paragraph of your press release so that it takes more than five seconds to read, you’re practically putting their fingers on the DELETE key. Anything longer than a Twitter posting — 140 characters or less — is guaranteed to make their eyes glaze.

In June of this year, President Obama directed me to declassify and make public as much information as possible about certain sensitive intelligence collection programs undertaken under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) while being mindful of the need to protect national security.  Consistent with this directive, today I authorized the declassification and public release of a number of documents pertaining to the Government’s collection of bulk telephony metadata under Section 501 of the FISA, as amended by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.  These documents were properly classified, and their declassification is not done lightly.  I have determined, however, that the harm to national security in these circumstances is outweighed by the public interest. Release of these documents reflects the Executive Branch’s continued commitment to making information about this intelligence collection program publicly available when appropriate and consistent with the national security of the United States.

Tut-tut! It has nothing to do with the Freedom Of Information Act requests filed by newspapers and civil liberties groups; this is a generous, voluntary gesture by a benevolent spy agency that would rather ingest cyanide than divulge its secrets. But in the off chance that someone is still reading, now’s the time to hit them with the punchline:

Some information has been redacted because these documents include discussion of matters that continue to be properly classified for national security reasons and the harm to national security would be great if disclosed.  These documents will be made available at the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (www.dni.gov), and on the recently established public website dedicated to fostering greater public visibility into the intelligence activities of the Government (IContheRecord.tumblr.com).

So, the documents have been redacted to eliminate any items of interest, and — here’s the master stroke — they haven’t even been posted yet. But it’s brilliant to list the URLs in the press release just so the editor can take some extra time to go to the sites to make sure they aren’t there. [UPDATE: They’re up as of Sept. 11. Thanks for your patience.]

Extra points, by the way, for the catchy title for the website, I Con the Record, and the inspired choice of Tumblr as a venue for posting the documents, which instantly conveys a level of seriousness and trustworthiness.

But let’s forge on:

The documents released today were provided to Congress at the time of the events in question and include orders and opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), filings with that court, an Inspector General Report, and internal NSA documents.  They describe certain compliance incidents that were discovered by NSA, reported to the FISC and the Congress, and resolved four years ago. As demonstrated in these documents, once compliance incidents were discovered in the telephony metadata collection program, additional checks, balances, and safeguards were developed to help prevent future instances of non-compliance.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“Mike” from “Breaking Bad.”

So here’s a case of the buried lede: He waits until the tenth and final paragraph of the press release to inform us that everything has been fixed and thus, since 2009, there have been no further incidents that warrant greater public visibility.

CORRECTION: Because of an editing incident, selected captions on the photos accompanying this article were inadvertently non-compliant with established editing standards. Safeguards are being implemented to help prevent future editing incidents.

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