How NSA Apologists Exploit State Secrets

Two congressmen reveal selected details from a classified report—for the purposes of discrediting Edward Snowden.
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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, and Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland (Reuters)

The Pentagon has produced a classified report on Edward Snowden's disclosure of NSA documents. It attempts to assess the affect of the leak on national security. Why is the report classified? Ostensibly because the information it contains would threaten national security if it were released to the American public. 

That's the only proper reason for declaring it off limits.
 
Yet two congressmen working with the Obama Administration revealed select details from its pages. Shane Harris has the story over at Foreign Policy. Can you guess what motived these legislators to reveal these official secrets to the press? Citing a congressional staffer familiar with the report's findings, the article reports "that the lawmakers chose to make some of its contents public in order to counter what they see as a false impression of Snowden as a principled whistleblower."
 
A direct quote follows:

"Snowden has been made out by some people to be a hero. What we need to do is really look at the effect of his leaks and see that what he's done is really harm our country and put citizens at risk. The purpose [of releasing some findings] is to clear the record and show that he's not a hero," the staffer told Foreign Policy.

The staffer said that the administration approved the information that the lawmakers disclosed in advance.

Declassification to turn the public against a leaker! 

It's an illustrative example of how government officials exploit the asymmetric access to information that the classification system affords them. A dispute arises. A report is produced that perhaps sheds light on it. But the public never gets to see all the relevant facts. They're just told about some of them second hand.

Should you trust the characterizations of these legislators, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democratic ranking member? Well, bearing in mind that Edward Snowden hasn't himself published any documents, and gave his trove to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman, who have decided, in consultation with various newspaper editors, what to make public, look at how Ruppersberger characterized the leak: "Snowden handed terrorists a copy of our country's playbook and now we are paying the price, which this report confirms," he said. "His actions aligned him with our enemy."

Is that a man who is using a new information derived from an investigation to increase your understanding? Or the language of someone trying to manipulate you?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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