Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Costs of the NSA Exposure and Demagoguery

NSA is a heck of a place. I live just up the road from it, and for years, we have all joked that the acronym stands for "No Such Agency", because its existence was officially denied for so long. But when road signs off of 95 and 32 announce the exits for it, the half-hearted efforts to feign its secrecy became comical. Nonetheless, while everyone on earth knew it was there, we still didn't know exactly what went on there. Sure, we knew that it was the home of electrical intelligence gathering, cipher makers and breakers, and all sorts of technological cool stuff. And I have known many friends who worked there who could not tell me what they did for a living. Because that's the place that enables us to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. The less we know, the better.

But now, we have a bigger problem. We actually know what is going on there. We first heard that calls with one point outside the country were being monitored. We then learned that of those calls, there was a spiderweb-like matrix of telephone number sources created. And then we learned that NSA may be keeping a listing of each and every telephone number and the calls it makes and receives. We learned that these were the methods they used to track and tighten the net on terrorists and their operations within and without our nation.

Setting aside the emotional implications that the release of information like that might create for those of us who think that such a release of information is dangerous and for those who believe that the collection of such information is a violation of our civil liberties, it's important to first take a dispassionate view of the issue.

The first point is that NSA exists to protect us from our enemies by using technology to our advantage and to their disadvantage. But the critical element of that function is that the sources and methods used must remain undisclosed, to the point that we really don't even talk about the fact that we are even trying to undermine unfriendly folk. So when we have the kind of revelations that the past year has provided, those seeking to destroy us are able to adapt away from our efforts at interdiction. And then we need to spend all the more time and effort to find new ways to reliably detect them. To get a flavor of the cost of resuming the now lost chase, after the Walker spy ring was broken up, it cost us approximately one billion dollars to replace coding systems and military hardware which the Walkers had exposed. That was about 20 years ago. I can't imagine what it will cost for us to get back in the terrorists' baffles again today.

The second point is that it gives the terrorists some benchmark as to what is known or knowable by us. They now know that their international calls are compromised. They also know that we can track them and their compatriots by their use of telephones. So they probably just stop using them. They'll use intranational communications that can't be monitored. They'll use low tech and harder to monitor methods. They'll use the mail. They'll operate by old fashioned cold-war signals with predetermined meanings. A broken window. A skidmark on a curb, whatever. These people are not stupid. They make a point of exploiting perceived weaknesses. Now, we've tipped them off to our strengths.

And they don't give up. Because more to the point of that benchmark, they can now know which plans to abandon and can start anew on another plot. And let's presume that this puts a significant damper on a bigger attack and moves them to a point of desperation, instilling a fear that if they do not act soon, they will be caught before they can execute something spectacular like 9/11. Perhaps, then, they will resort to a series of attacks that are much smaller, but greater in number that require minimal effort, but will have the effect of unleashing untold terror at the personal and local level. Attacks on local gathering places for example. The kind of things that will cause people to react with abject fear in their daily lives. And we would be none the wiser.

But to bring it to a point, those doing the leaking of these secrets and those publicizing them under the guise of protection of civil liberties are endangering the lives of the people whose liberties they claim to be protecting by empowering the terrorists who were hoping that they would do just that.

With respect to the act of leaking, there have been several justifications offered for same, namely that in each instance a single individual feared that laws were being violated, and took the law into his or her hands and illegally disclosed state security secrets. As I stated in a prior post, there are legitimate paths to take in order to blow a whistle but maintain security--offices of Inspectors General, the Attorney General, or even Members of Congress and the Senate once clearances have been checked--excellent places to go to make classified concerns known, while maintaining secrecy. But going to the New York Times and The Washington Post are not. And by the terms of the law, doing so is a crime.

And it strikes me as peculiar that people are willing to put their freedom on the line in order to make some point about their political disagreement with the Bush Administration's efforts to fight terror. I don't mean to say that this is the sole cause of these leaks, but I do mean to imply that it is a chief cause, as it is fair to say that arrogance with a smaller measure of stupidity also play their own roles.

Because the people who know about these programs know full well that they are not about finding out what's for supper tonight, grandma' health, or hearing people's kids screaming in the background. They know it is all about fighting terrorism, and they have made absolutely no credible allegation that the program was being used to spy on Americans, meaning that the dangers they feared were of a phantom nature. And so to throw the program open for the enemies it targets to evaluate and adapt to it is, apart from the criminal aspects of leaking, completely devoid of any justification or reason, save for those offered above.

But I am more concerned about the message that this sends terrorists. It shows that our security can be very easily compromised by people who, for ideological reasons, adopt the ACLU standards of privacy and see no problem with breaching security in order to stick a barb in the side of the President and our security apparatus. Worse yet, the notion that the media is sculpting, that the NSA is actually a public enemy rather than a protector is a destructive one. And the basis for that presumption is that they have the ability to illegally harm the American people just as much as lawfully help them. But that same logic applies to our highly respected military, and nobody would ever seriously entertain the idea that they would ever attempt to do us harm. It is pure misinformation, conspiracy talk, and demagoguery.

Interestingly, however, that same logic can be very easily and sensibly applied to the leakers and the media who publish classified information leaked to them.

The leakers offer the excuse that they are whistleblowers, however misinterpreting the law, but trying to protect Americans. But they have blown the lid off of effective efforts to protect Americans and shown terrorists their exposure. They didn't grasp the Constitutional law which they claimed to be advancing, and apparently didn't take seriously enough the statutes which direct that classified material is not to be disclosed without proper authorization from the President or Vice President. And they get to be a hero in the media for a few moments.

The media is perhaps even more culpable. In their quest to advance their own political agenda, they are willing to report information known to be protected by a state security classification and add their own spin in order to cause problems for the President by casting such programs as Big Brother efforts to spy on Americans (presumably because the President is interested in what we are cooking for dinner or how long the kids played at the playground). They know the risks, but nonetheless release such information, ignoring the harm it may cause Americans in favor of the help it may bring their own political cronies.

For both, responsibility is ignored in favor of personal political gain. And there ought to be a consequence for all three. For the leakers, there need be no mercy shown, despite the fact that they put on the false clothing of a "whistleblower". They need to be prosecuted for breaking the law and for exposing state secrets. Send them to jail in a cell next to Robert Hanssen and the Walkers, and end any potential incentive that a misguided leaker may have to endanger the rest of us.

The media needs to be held to the same standard, and source protection needs to be abolished when it comes to the unauthorized disclosure of state secrets. In other words, the media needs to become part of the backstop so that there is no longer any benefit to the acts of the leaker. Only punishment. And publication of secrets needs to be treated with the same severity as the initial leaking. We know the media can keep secrets about their sources. They can do the same about the State. So for every Pulitzer Prize that a news outlet is hoping for, there needs to be the promise of a criminal sanction to create the appropriate incentive to obedience to the law.

Because keeping state secrets and maintaining a place like NSA, while sounding very cloak and dagger is what keeps us safe. And it's why our legislators are kept in the loop by the Administration. And if we distrust the government, we can overthrow it every 2-4 years, electing people with whom we may agree more.

But the business of exposing and tearing down our security apparatus for purely political reasons must stop. Because it's just what our enemies were hoping we would be stupid and naive enough to do.

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