Media contacts are limited to field office managers and public relations employees
The restrictions come amid multiple FBI leak investigations
The FBI is overhauling its media policy, restricting contacts between the news media and its employees amid controversy over alleged leaks, bureau officials told CNN.
The new media policy was rolled out this week at a conference in Washington attended by FBI special agents in charge of its 56 field offices, according to officials who attended.
Media access to top officials at the FBI became more common in recent years under FBI Director James Comey, part of a transparency effort he said was aiming at demystifying the FBI and helping the public understand its mission. But the new policy appears to curtail that access.
An official familiar with the development of the new policy described it as largely a “clarification” intended to reinforce existing rules on who is authorized to talk to reporters, not a step back from Comey’s transparency initiatives.
The restrictions come amid multiple leak investigations looking into whether current or government officials provided information for recent news stories about contacts between associates of the Trump campaign and suspected Russian operatives.
It also follows a year during which the FBI came under criticism for alleged leaks that led to stories on the Hillary Clinton email server investigation. Though critics called them leaks, some of the stories ended up being false, believed driven by partisan supporters claiming to know about developments in the case – including word of an impending indictment of Clinton, which turned out not to be true. The FBI closed its case after finding that there was not enough evidence to merit charges.
The FBI policy overhaul is intended to underscore that media contacts are limited to those managers in charge of the field offices, in addition to designated public relations employees and others given specific authorization, the officials said.
The FBI declined to comment.
President Donald Trump and White House officials have lashed out against alleged leaks related to stories dealing with Russia. Among those stories are news articles by The New York Times and CNN describing the FBI’s investigation of contacts between former Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives.
At a White House meeting in February, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that a story from The New York Times on those contacts was not accurate, according to White House officials and officials familiar with McCabe’s version of events.
Weeks later, in testimony before the House intelligence committee, Comey said the FBI was investigating possible coordination between people associated with the Trump campaign and Russians. Comey’s testimony served as the first public confirmation by the FBI of the key parts of the stories published by the Times and CNN.
The FBI’s move to restrict how it shares information with the public comes as the bureau celebrates the debut of a new television series later this month about the FBI’s New York field office. Comey authorized extensive behind-the-scenes access to filmmaker Mark Levin as the New York FBI office dealt with the rise of ISIS threats, the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and other national security issues. The FBI maintained editorial control of the television series.
At a premiere event at the Newseum in Washington last week, Comey explained the importance of letting the public see more about how the FBI does its work. He made reference to the criticism against the FBI – and him – for its handling of the investigation of the Clinton private email server.
“I worry sometimes that people don’t know us,” Comey said during a discussion following a screening of the show.
“We did a lot last year that confused people, because they’re seeing the world … through sides,” Comey said. “If you see the world through sides, the FBI doesn’t make a lot of sense to people. Because you’re saying, ‘why did they help this person and hurt that (person)?’”
Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been among the critics who have decried alleged leaks in recent months. The official familiar with the media policy changes said efforts to update the policy began last year and weren’t in reaction to recent complaints.
The FBI hasn’t identified leakers as the source of news articles on the Trump-Russia stories.