News Column

How Much Secrecy Is Necessary for National Security?

June 13, 2013

Carolyn Kaster

Is all this NSA secrecy necessary?

In the aftermath of the revelations that the National Security Agency is sweeping up vast amounts of telephone and Internet records, Google and Facebook are calling for the government to reveal more about how they operate secret surveillance programs.

The call by the tech giants for less secrecy is spurring a broader debate about whether the intelligence community is remaining unnecessarily opaque about some of its operations.

Former government intelligence officials and experts are divided on whether keeping such programs cloaked in secrecy is vital to their effectiveness, and whether the NSA revelations have undermined the effectiveness of those programs in the future.

"I think there are legitimate issues to be raised about how much more leg can be shown ... to facilitate public debate and a debate in Congress, but the main risk and damage that's been caused in these leaks is in hurting the cooperation and confidence between private sector companies that are involved and the government agencies," said Paul Pillar, a former chief counterterrorism analyst for the CIA.

Citing classified documents leaked by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden, The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers reported last week that the FBI and NSA had access to data of major U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs.

Under growing criticism from users, Google and Facebook on Tuesday asked the Justice Department to allow them to disclose information about national-security requests for data in its transparency report.

Critics of secrecy say would-be terrorists certainly already know what's going on, leaving little reason to keep Americans totally in the dark about what sort of information it's collecting.

By all indications, the top terrorist minds of this generation -- Osama bin Laden and Anwar Awlaki -- were fully aware that U.S. intelligence officials were closely monitoring their telephone and Internet activity. Bin Laden went into a virtual electronic shutdown after escaping U.S. forces during the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001. And Awlaki went to great lengths at the end of his life to obscure his digital footprint.

"I'm not sure what kind of advantage an adversary gets when we say, 'Hey, we're collecting a lot of phone and e-mail records,'" said Philip Mudd, a former FBI and CIA counterterrorism official.

However, some intelligence analysts and government officials say keeping such programs cloaked in secrecy is vital to their effectiveness. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recent disclosures about the NSA phone and e-mail operations damaged national security, but he did not provide specifics. "Our ability to discuss these activities is limited by our need to protect intelligence sources and methods," Clapper said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the Internet surveillance program, known as PRISM was helpful in catching Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty in the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway, saying he had been recruited by al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The break in that case came, according to court documents and testimony, when Zazi e-mailed a Yahoo address seeking help with his bomb recipe.

"It's the rogue actor, the random guy like the New York subway bomber, that is now going to act differently," said James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The non-professional will now be more cautious about how he acts."

In the recent past, Congress has shown little appetite for making public even the general outlines of the government's surveillance programs. Last year, three disclosure proposals were considered and defeated by the House Judiciary Committee.

History has shown that clandestine snooping techniques can be revealed without undermining the ability of the intelligence community to continue to use the programs.

For example, journalist Jack Anderson revealed in 1971 that hidden in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was a radiotelephone interceptor that was listening in on calls by the Kremlin leadership. Anderson was condemned by the U.S. government for the disclosure of the program, code-named Gamma Guppy.

Despite the fact that Gamma Guppy had been compromised, the Soviet leaders continued to use this insecure form of communication. And the Gamma Guppy intelligence continued to roll in, said Matthew Aid, a U..S. intelligence historian.

"If history teaches us anything," Aid said, "the immediate claims by senior intelligence officers (of) severe and irremediable damage to the U.S. intelligence community are usually overstated."

President Obama insists that the secretive surveillance programs by the National Security Agency are legal. The disclosure of the programs has put his administration under fire.

Carolyn Kaster, AP

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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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