No, the NSA Leaks Aren't Putting Americans at Risk

It shouldn't be impossible to give Americans some sense of how the disclosures will help the terrorists.

If a person in government says the sun will come up tomorrow, it's sensible to believe that person -- but not until the first rays seep over the horizon. Skepticism is even more justified when the government has been caught hiding something from the public and needs to excuse the secrecy.

Courtesy of the gubmintCourtesy of the gubmintIn the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaks about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, its defenders have made two basic assertions. The first is that these programs were vital in stopping terrorists. The second is that by revealing their mere existence, Snowden did grave damage to national security.

On the first claim, NSA Director Keith Alexander and others have gone into great detail, crediting the programs for foiling some 50 plots. But on the second one, they have been curiously reticent.

Now, it's hard to believe it would come as a great surprise to Al Qaeda that American spies might be examining their phone records. Nor is it likely that hardened militants were slapping their foreheads to learn that someone in Washington may have been reading their email or listening in on their Skype chats.

But those in power insist that unveiling the information put lives at risk. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, decried these "dangerous national security leaks," insisting that the "effectiveness of these programs depends on them being kept secret from the foreign terrorists they target."

Alexander echoed that claim in testifying before the committee last week. Asked whether the revelation was harmful to security, he replied, "I think it was irreversible and significant damage to this nation. ... I believe it will hurt us and our allies."

But how? My curiosity whetted, I contacted Rogers' office for information on what the terrorists gained. A spokesman emailed to say the chairman could not be bothered to offer support for his allegation: "He does not have space available in his schedule this week to re-address issues that have very clearly been addressed in the open hearing." No transcript of the hearing was available, but I was assured I would get the answers if I watched the video.

Filled with hope, I watched all three hours -- but was disappointed. Only three times did the subject come up at all, and then briefly. No one offered anything to substantiate the claim.

I continued to pester for evidence that would vindicate Rogers. At length, I got a statement from the chairman, which said, "Providing details of how terrorists have adapted their behavior based on what they have learned from the recent leaks would only compound the damage those leaks have done by giving our adversaries feedback on the quality of their work. I will say, broadly, that these leaks have done serious damage to our ability to detect and disrupt terrorist plots."

That evasion would be more believable if it hadn't occurred after officials spent hours publicly detailing how the NSA and FBI operate. Or if those officials had not shined a floodlight on specific plots and how these programs pulverized them.

It shouldn't be impossible to give Americans some sense of how the disclosures will help the terrorists. Will they get rid of their cellphones? Stay off the Internet? Use smoke signals? Actually, those don't sound like harms from the leaks -- they sound like benefits.

Maybe there are other obvious things they could do. Rogers avows he would be aiding our enemies if he said a word about what they might do. But our enemies already know what they can do. The only people who don't are ordinary Americans.

I hoped to have better luck with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who says Snowden committed "treason." I called her press secretary, asked the same question I had asked Rogers' spokesperson and was promised a response. Despite additional calls, I never got it.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, finally offered something tangible on the point. The leaks endanger Americans, he explained, because "you have persons who want to undertake terrorist attacks who don't have a full understanding of the Internet. And, to the extent that you expose programs like this, we are educating them."

Yes, he really said that. Maybe Mueller thinks the terrorists are incredibly dumb. Or maybe he just thinks we are.

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  • Marshall Gill||

    If a person in government says the sun will come up tomorrow, it's sensible to believe that person -- but not until the first rays seep over the horizon.

    Science H. Logic!

  • Fluffy||

    So, where in the world is Snowden?

    a) The Russians grabbed him, and will keep him
    b) The Russians grabbed him, to give him to us
    c) He never really left Hong Kong
    d) He left Hong Kong, but not on the flight we thought. He went to Ecuador by another route
    e) He evaded the pursuit in Moscow Jason Bourne style by booking the Havana flight and then sneaking out a different way while the world press takes pictures of an empty plane seat

    I'm hoping (e), just because that's so badass.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    So, where in the world is Snowden?

    You don't get to type those words without linking to this.

  • ||

    A friend of mine living in Russia thinks they might trade him for Victor Bout.

  • Fluffy||

    Or hell, I guess

    f) He's still in the Moscow airport waiting to take a different flight that won't pass through US airspace

  • Ted S.||

    I presume the Moscow-Havana flights go over EU airspace. But I can't imagine any countries there trying to force the plane to land if they still want gas from Russia.

  • Fluffy||

    The flight he didn't show up for this morning was apparently going to fly over New York.

  • mr lizard||

    Damn, the NYPD would've used their 9/11 SAMs

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    A spokesman emailed to say the chairman could not be bothered to offer support for his allegation...

    If anyone here is from Michigan's 8th Congressional District, you might - just might - be able to get more of an answer out of that office.

  • Ted S.||

    Good luck with that. Maybe sloopy can do it. ;-)

  • mr lizard||

    "you have persons who want to undertake terrorist attacks who don't have a full understanding of the Internet. And, to the extent that you expose programs like this, we are educating them."

    You know who else was too dumb to use the Internet?

  • Matrix||

    probably Robert Mueller

  • Ted S.||

    Chuck Schumer?

  • AdamJ||

    Anthony Weiner?

  • Rich||

    David Petraeus?

  • sarcasmic||

    Al Gore?

  • AdamJ||

    Elliot Spitzer?

  • mr lizard||

    The answer I was looking for was The Riddler from Batman Forever

  • AdamJ||

    Oh I know... Bin Laden. If I recall correctly, all his porn was on VHS.

  • mr lizard||

    Damn that's a better answer

  • Rich||

    by revealing their mere existence, Snowden did grave damage to national security.

    That is, the mere existence of our reptilian overlords.

    Seriously, on MTP yesterday Obama mouthpiece Robert Gibbs kept hammering on "we don't have millions of agents listening to everyone's calls". Doesn't *that* revelation do grave damage to national security?

  • AdamJ||

    But we do have a few agents recording millions of call records and emails.

  • AdamJ||

    Mark Halperin gave these same talking points on Morning Joe the other day. If there was ever a time to call Obama a dick, now would be that time Mark.

  • ||

    Yeah it is funny that these guys keep revealing more and more about the program in their efforts at damage control/ covering their crime.

    Classic criminal behavior.

  • mr lizard||

    Your actual Reptilian Overlords are enjoying watching all the stupid mammals soften themselves up.

  • Rich||

    I, for one, welcome mr lizard to this thread!

  • mr lizard||

    You say that now, until our 20 sided Dice of Discrimination comes up your shade

  • Rich||

    Ha! I'm *albino*! Suck on *that*!

  • mr lizard||

    We haven't finished painting the Dice...

  • wwhorton||

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0292506/
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt02.....tt_rec_tti

    Bridget Moynahan and Matt Damon are the biggest threats to national security since radio and television, then.

  • sarcasmic||

    Is it just me, or is a a bit ironic that someone from the supposed land of the free must go to China and Russia for political asylum?

  • Rebekah||

    The risk of being disappeared or murdered for exposing government wrongdoing is the price we pay for freedom!

    /authoritardian

  • Ted S.||

    It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

  • Mike M.||

    It's more than a bit ironic. How unfortunate that Andrew Breitbart didn't do the same thing himself.

  • ||

    Has anyone mentioned yet that when Clapper lied to congress he did so because the overall assumption was that what the NSA was doing was illegal? Pre-Snowden, every official seemed to be lying their asses off about this program with that assumption in mind.

    The only real revelation Snowden gave us is that the NSA is indiscriminately grabbing data from all phone calls, which is certainly illegal.

    Snowden outed them and suddenly they try to give traction to the assumption that it is legal because it overseen by a secret star chamber and snowden is the traitor.

    Nice.

  • John||

    Of course that is why he lied. The thing is our enemies have known that we listen to pretty much anything we want to since at least 05 and more like 2001.

    The idea that the NSA's ability to listen to a lot of things is somehow this great secret is ridiculous. Just exactly what is the NSA doing if not listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of our enemies? Our enemies know this and no doubt act accordingly. There is no rational case to be made that leaking the existence of this program harmed US interests. People say that but they never say why. They just mouth it as some irrefutable truth, when it is in fact completely untrue.

  • DJF||

    “”””Just exactly what is the NSA doing if not listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of our enemies? “”’

    I thought they were collecting the entire historical record of internet porn.

  • John||

    They apparently have done that as well. Can you imagine the amount of porn in that stash of emails? How many people have emailed naked pictures of themselves to their significant other? I wonder how many celebrities have done that? Not that any NSA contractor would ever abuse the system by reading Scarlett Johnanson or Natalie Portman's email to find out or anything. No, they are all professionals. They would never do that.

  • Jerryskids||

    Just exactly what is the NSA doing if not listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of our enemies?

    Listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of American citizens. It's much easier, cheaper, safer, more comfortable to tap into the telecommunications grid of the United States than of Pakistan - much like the drunk looking under the streetlight for the keys he dropped in the dark alley.

    But yes, the argument that there's no there there in the NSA scandal because this whole thing has been public knowledge and everything's been totally transparent simply cannot be squared with the argument that Snowden has damaged our national security by leaking the knowledge that this program exists. WTF has he leaked if we already all knew all about it?

  • BigT||

    "Yes, he really said that. Maybe Mueller thinks the terrorists are incredibly dumb. Or maybe he just thinks we are."

    He's right. After all, look who is Prez

  • John||

    Some terrorists are dumb. It is not that Mueller thinks terrorists are dumb. He knows they are smart. It is that he has no idea how to deal with the smart terrorists. So he pretends doing this will work.

  • AdamJ||

    Yep.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Maybe if the President threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue...

  • John||

    It would be reducing CO2 output. And I hear that is a big deal.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    e) He evaded the pursuit in Moscow Jason Bourne style by booking the Havana flight and then sneaking out a different way while the world press takes pictures of an empty plane seat

    It could work.

    Now, if he would just eat the Campaigner-in-Chief's liver with a nice Chianti, he'll truly be my hero.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    "Yes, he really said that. Maybe Mueller thinks the terrorists are incredibly dumb. Or maybe he just thinks we are."

    Of course they all think we're incredibly stupid. These are the same type of people that say things like this in regard to charging Snowden.

    "These charges send a clear message,” the spokesman said. “In the United States, you can’t spy on people"

    And

    “Only by bringing Mr. Snowden to justice can we safeguard the most precious of American rights: privacy"

    The derp is strong in this one.

  • John||

    "These charges send a clear message,” the spokesman said. “In the United States, you can’t spy on people"

    What the fuck?

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    What the fuck?

    Took the words right out of my mouth (keyboard?), John.

    US Seemingly Unaware of Irony in Accusing Snowden of Spying

    As I said, the derp is strong.

  • John||

    They really do live in an alternative reality.

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Aye. The headache caused by just trying to reconcile that statement with reality made me drink last night.

  • ||

    I went to the link and read the article. My jaw was dropped through the whole thing.

    The only way that person, unnamed I notice, is if they take literally Shitweasel's assertion that the government is us and we are the government.

    Perhaps someone should have mentioned to him that our private documents were revealed to ourselves, and thus no privacy was violated.

    This is definitely 'down the rabbit hole' territory.

  • BoxyBoxyBoxyBoxy||

    I'm getting the impression that some people aren't aware that the Borowitz report is satire.

    Here are some other headlines:

    TALIBAN NAMED BEST PLACE TO WORK 2013

    MURDOCH DIVORCE STUNS SATAN

    U.S. PROMISES SMOOTH TRANSFER OF QUAGMIRE FROM AFGHANISTAN TO SYRIA

  • ||

    Derp? What the fuck does that even mean? It is some kind of weird Orwellian twist of logic where black is white and up is down.

    Where did you get those quotes?

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Derp is an internet meme that refers to blatant stupidity.

    Link provided a few posts down from original.

  • ||

    I know what derp is. I was saying that it isnt derp, but some kind of logic that doesnt apply in the world you and I live in; Orwellian double-speak.

  • ||

    Hey Chapman, by asking for more info from government officials on this program, it is not unlikely that this administration could view that as an attempt to entice those officials into leaking. They may try to paint your journalistic efforts as conspiring to commit espionage.

    Given their words and deeds with regards to Greenwald, this would be the next step in putting a boot down on the press. If what Greenwald did is a crime, why isnt trying to do it a crime?

    We are becoming more and more of a banana republic every day under President Shitweasel. I predict that before he is out of office simply asking the wrong questions will be regarded as criminal.

  • John||

    I am sensing a conspiracy or solicitation charge here. Chapman clearly is trying to soliciting officials to commit a felony and is actively taking steps to help that happen.

    Yeah, we are all felons now.

  • ||

    As ridiculous as it might seem, I was being serious. I can easily see these thugs doing just that. Nothing is over the top for them.

  • Almanian!||

    Again I ask - which is worse - the fact that the US govt is doing all kinda extra-Constitutional (i.e. "illegal") shit to its citizens, or that Snowden leaked info confirming this fact?

    I'll take the box where Carol Merrill is standing, Monte!

  • Almanian!||

    And let's note that we've been lucky that a fair number of terrrrrrisssaazzz HAVE been dumb (Shoe Bomber, Underwear Bomber...I'm forgetting some ohers), and Brave Citizens have stopped those doffuses in about 100% of the cases - NOT TSA, NSA, FBI, CIA, etc.

    Fuck the government.

  • eyeroller||

    It definitely affects security. Government agents feel less secure when people know what they are doing.

  • Anders||

    Everyone knew that a program of this sort existed, there were previous whistle blowers much higher up the ladder than Snowden.

    What seems to have upset people is that far from being targeted at America's enemies, it's targeted at everyone on earth and the politicians reaction to the outrage has largely been "STFU peons!"

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