'I Cannot Figure Out Why This Was Classified to Begin With'

What the PRISM leaks have in common with the Pentagon Papers
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Today this note came in from a reader in Florida, about the revelations of NSA phone-surveillance programs:

In general, I'm partial to ACLU and EFF arguments about privacy and civil liberties in the digital age. But I'm also a pragmatist about national security, and the reality that there are foreign and domestic terrorists who will kill many innocent citizens if they can...

Now the security damage from these leaks becomes a bit clearer for me. Prior to these revelations, I doubt that Al-Qaeda or domestic terrorist groups (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood) could figure out how they were routinely identified and compromised. They probably assumed an informant betrayed them, or they simply assumed that they were exposed by bad luck. But now, the smarter (therefore more dangerous) terrorists know that their cell phone patterns and networks are likely the problem.

What to do if you're a terrorist? If it were me, I'd have everyone in my network throw away their cell phone periodically, purchase a new prepaid phone with cash, and distribute new phone numbers via secure means. Maybe I would use clandestine meetings. Or pay phones. Or dead drops. The point is, a very valuable (and top secret) intelligence collection tool has been compromised.
I wrote back to the reader saying, more politely, Are you kidding? Terrorist or criminal groups would not have to wait for the PRISM revelations to guess that cell phone traffic might give them away. All they would have to do is watch any American movie or TV show produced since about 1985. Half the action in the first few seasons of The Wire involved "burner phones"; think of 24, Breaking Bad, or any other depiction of groups trying to operate outside the authorities' view. Everything now known about Osama bin Laden's final off-the-grid years suggests his scrupulous awareness of the perils of leaving an electronic trail.

My point is not that crime drama is a perfect representation of reality, nor to set this reader up as a straw man, since he's provided a long stream of otherwise-astute observations. Rather I'm using his message to highlight one of the most striking aspects of the PRISM revelations: the unusual risk/reward balance in this latest large-scale leak.

The ethics of disclosing classified information can sometimes be a very close call. I don't mean for the government-employee leaker. Those who signed a pledge to protect information are at best breaking their word, and at worst breaking the law and perhaps putting people in danger, when they divulge secrets, even when they believe they are serving a higher cause. I am talking instead about the ethics of the reporter or publisher who receives the leaked info, and the public that absorbs it. If a news story reveals that a certain detail came from inside the North Korean leadership, to choose a recent example -- or from an al Qaeda confidante, or an Iranian scientist -- that disclosure might dry up future information, alert the other group to the presence of a mole, or put that source in mortal danger. Disclosure may still be worth it, but it's not an easy call -- especially when the the very details that would endanger sources would make no difference to most ordinary readers.

But when it comes to PRISM? At face value, it seems to be one of the most clearly beneficial "security violations" in years. Why?
  • On the plus side, for the general public it is of very significant value to know (rather than suspect) that such a program has been underway. President Obama says that he is "happy to debate" the tradeoff between security and privacy. The truth is that we probably wouldn't be having any such debate, and we certainly couldn't have a fully informed debate, if this program (and others) remained classified. The greatest harm done by the 9/11 attacks was setting the US on a ratchet-track toward "preventive" wars overseas and security-state distortions at home. In withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has partially redressed the overseas aspect of that equation. (On the other hand: drones.) These leaks, which he denounces, may constitute our hope for redressing the domestic part.

  • And on the minus side, what about the harm of the PRISM revelations? Again at face value, it seems minimal. American citizens have learned that all their communications may have been intercepted. Any consequential terrorist or criminal group worth worrying about must have assumed this all along.
This brings me to Fred Kaplan's interview just now, in Slate, with Brian Jenkins, of RAND. Jenkins is an expert in terrorism whom I have known for decades and have often quoted in our pages -- for instance seven years ago, in my "Declaring Victory" article. Now he tells Fred Kaplan that he worries about the implications of the security-state infrastructure the U.S. has erected. For context: Jenkins was a Special Forces combat veteran in Vietnam and is not a reflexive dove. All of his comments are worth reading, but this about the PRISM revelations really struck me:
"I cannot figure out why this was classified to begin with. It should have been in the public domain all along. The fact is, terrorists know we're watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn't need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we're worried about, they know this. There are debates we can have in public without really giving away sensitive collection secrets. It's a risk, but these are issues that affect all of us and our way of life."
There is a lot more to learn about this program, its reach into public life, its alleged or real benefits, and the possible consequences of its revelation. But at face value, I feel about this news the way I did when the Pentagon Papers were unveiled many decades ago. The public has learned something important about policies carried out in its name, at what seems -- for now -- a modest cost to vulnerable individuals or national safety as a whole.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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