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“Top Secret” Should Mean Just That

TOP SECRET//SI//NO FORN

That’s the heading on the first page of the court order obtained the Guardian. Top Secret is one of the highest levels of security classification in the U.S. government; the other initials indicate that this is “special intelligence,” aka “signals intelligence,” one of the most closely guarded capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community, and that it should not shown to any foreigners. Ironically and disturbingly, a British newspaper obtained this document.

Now it seems to be open season on the secret intelligence-gathering programs of the U.S. government. Following the Guardian’s exposure of this data-mining program that collects phone logs, the Washington Post has decided to reveal the existence of a program code-named PRISM which allows the National Security Agency  to tap “into the central servers of nine leading U.S. U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

These disclosures raise obvious privacy concerns that deserve to be further explored by Congress behind closed doors. But there is no suggestion on the evidence so far presented that either program is illegal or unauthorized or that it has been misused for nefarious purposes. Quite the opposite: Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says that the data-mining program has been used to avert at least one terrorist attack.

So why are we reading about these programs? They are, after all, highly classified—and for good reason: We don’t want terrorists to know what capabilities our intelligence agencies have to track their plots.

Here is the Washington Post’s explanation of how it got the story:

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

I have no idea who this intelligence officer is, but he (or she) has committed a serious crime by the unauthorized disclosure of such sensitive information. He needs to be ferreted out and prosecuted. Perhaps if he had actual knowledge of the PRISM program being misused such a breach of confidentiality might be morally, if not legally, justifiable–although even then his first step should be to contact his superiors or others in the government, not to talk to the Washington Post. But there is no suggestion of such misuse here. Instead this appears to be another legal and authorized program that has been implemented by our elected leaders to protect us against terrorists. Government officials stress that only “non-U.S. persons” who are abroad are subject to PRISM monitoring and that the entire program was authorized by the 2007 Protect America Act.

President Obama deserves to be commended for continuing these programs, building on work done in the Bush administration, rather than being attacked as the second coming of Big Brother. The Post and Guardian, for their part, are being irresponsible by printing these disclosures that are more highly classified than the cables that Bradley Manning released–a crime for which he is now being tried. Instead of expressing outrage at these actions to fight terrorism, as so many on both the left and right are now doing, it would be nice if someone got a little outraged at this breach of the secrecy needed for effective intelligence-gathering.

It seems like only yesterday that the chattering classes were castigating the FBI, CIA and other agencies for not doing a better job of monitoring the Tsarnaev brothers before they carried out the Boston bombing. Similar outrage is being directed at the British security services in the wake of their failure to prevent the murder of a British soldier by two Anglo-Nigerian jihadists. Obviously “sigint” collection tools such as PRISM are not a foolproof defense against such attacks especially when undertaken by loners unaffiliated with a known terrorist organization. But they are an important, indeed vital, tool to prevent major attacks on a 9/11 scale, which require far more planning and organization. Exposing these collection tools makes it harder for them to be effective; shutting them down would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of a continuing terrorist assault.


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