To the list of semi-sketched-out changes in government GOP front-runner Donald Trump has proposed, you can add another. All federal employees in a future Trump administration would sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent them from writing unauthorized books, the billionaire real estate developer said in an interview published Saturday in the Washington Post.
Noting Trump’s famous demands for loyalty among his business associates, Post political reporter Robert Costa asked whether Trump is “going to make employees of the federal government sign nondisclosure agreements.”
His reply: “I think they should. You know . . . there could be some kind of a law that you can’t do this. But when people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that. I mean, I’ll be honest. And people would say, oh, that’s terrible, you’re taking away his right to free speech. Well . . . I would say . . . I do have nondisclosure deals. That’s why you don’t read that. . . .”
That prompted Post investigative reporter and author Bob Woodward’s follow-up question: “Do you think these are airtight agreements?”
Said Trump, “Yeah, totally. I think they’re very airtight. They’re very . . . And anybody that violated it, let’s put it this way: it’s so airtight that I’ve never had . . . you know, I’ve never had a problem with this sort of thing.”
The reporters noted that government differs from private business. “The taxpayers are paying the other people in the federal government,” Woodward said.
Replied Trump: “Sure. Sure. They don’t do a great job, and then you fire them and they end up writing a book about you. So it’s different. But I will say that in the federal government it’s a different thing. So it’s something I would think about. But you know, I do right now — I have thousands and thousands of employees, many thousands, and every one of them has an agreement, has a . . . I call it a confidentiality [agreement].”
Currently in the federal government, the employees who sign nondisclosure agreements are primarily in the national security community. As the Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes on its website, pre-publication review of any employees’ book proposal (see sample agreement here) is designed to prevent “unauthorized disclosure of information and ensure the mission of the ODNI and the foreign relations and security of the United States are not adversely affected by public disclosure.”
The obligation applies to current and former ODNI staff and contractors who have access to classified information. Advance review by a “pre-pub team” is required for employees’ nonofficial publications such as resumes, books, op-eds and personal blogs, as well as publications based on documents created as part of official duties, such as speeches, newsletters, official Web pages, outreach documents and brochures, the intel office says.
The situation is murkier for the majority of government employees who don’t work in the intelligence community and who don’t require security clearances, said Joanna Friedman, a partner in the Federal Practice Group in Washington. Nondisclosure requirements are common requirements in settlement agreements for, say, discrimination lawsuits that might tempt some plaintiffs to want to describe their experience in a book, she added.
But if you work at the Agriculture Department or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, for example, “You typically won’t be signing a non-disclosure agreement, though I suspect in this day and age of social media, federal agencies are starting to come up with internal regulations” that restrict active employees from posting online on official business without prior management approval. “It’s not such a hard stretch from that to being precluded from writing a book dealing with your workplace,” Friedman said. “But that does start to get into First Amendment rights.”
Doubtless Trump, whose own campaign aides have signed nondisclosure agreements, will be fleshing out his policy if and when his inauguration nears.