It’s a question worth pondering as we approach next week the first anniversary of news stories based on Edward Snowden’s massive document feeds to The Guardian and Washington Post — stories that introduced much of the world to the National Security Agency’s sweeping, court-monitored, legal surveillance apparatus and operations.
Military and congressional officials with access to the damage assessments have left no doubt where they stand:
Shortly after the early June Guardian and Washington Post revelations, then NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander told ABC’s “This Week” that what Snowden revealed “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency convened a damage assessment but declined to disclose it publicly, instead letting surrogates give unverified, possibly embellished, versions of what it said.
“This report confirms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers said in a January statement. “Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.”
DIA Director Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn followed at a congressional hearing when asked about the assessment saying, “The strongest word that I can use to describe, you know, how bad this is, this has caused grave damage to our national security.”
When asked at the hearing whether Snowden’s disclosures potentially risked the lives of U.S. troops, Flynn answered “yes.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has piled on, adding “this is a man who has done great damage to his country.”
These bleak assessments may well be true, yet it’s impossible for the public to verify them, especially after the release to The Guardian of the 39-page DIA assessment under the Freedom of Information Act.
Its story on the report this month had virtually no bounce in the U.S. — maybe because the DIA pickins’ were beyond slim.
Two sentences of assessment from a 39-page report seem skimpy at best.
The review “assesses with high confidence that the information…..will have a GRAVE impact on U.S. national defense.” That’s GRAVE in CAPS.
Then there’s this: “The scope of the compromised knowledge related to U.S. intelligence capabilities is staggering.”
Both sentences are followed by page after page of blank white space — the DIA’s version of “Trust But You Can’t Verify.”
Transparency in government advocate Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said in an e-mail that “it should be possible to have a candid conversation about the government’s view of the damage resulting from the Snowden disclosures.
‘‘ Some of them are obvious enough. For example, U.S. relations with allies and others have been compromised to some degree. There are IT firms that are facing a newly hostile marketplace abroad along with new competitors. And then there is the disclosure of collection methods, some of which may now have diminished value even for perfectly legitimate intelligence missions,’’ Aftergood said.
‘‘But by coyly redacting almost all of the substance of its own damage assessment, the government makes it harder to have this conversation,’’ he said.
DIA spokesman James Kudla said the redactions followed FOIA regulations.
Chris Farrell, director of investigations and research of Judicial Watch, which has successfully sued the administration for suppressed records, agreed with the NSA approach.
‘‘This is one of the few times when classified information exemption redactions may be appropriate,’’ he said. ‘‘Rather than covering up politically awkward facts by making self-serving classification claims, the DIA has presented redactions indicating the grave damage Snowden has done to this country — which has yet to be fully appreciated by most citizens.’’
‘‘There’s much more to the’’ signals intelligence ‘‘collection effort than screening cell phone metadata, which seems to be the focus of much reporting. That’s a fraction of the intelligence effort.’’