We’ve heard plenty of outrage over Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA activities as treason, and passionate defenses of him as a hero for crippling the surveillance state. How about Edward Snowden … nothingburger? Senator Jon Tester appeared on MSNBC to rebut Peter King’s contention that reporters should be prosecuted for cases like these, in which leaks damage national security. Rather than oppose King on First Amendment grounds, Tester says that Snowden’s leaks didn’t actually do that much damage:
“The information that they wrote about was just the fact that NSA was doing broad sweeps of foreign and domestic phone records, metadata. First of all, Snowden probably shouldn’t have done what he did. But the fact of the matter is is I don’t see how that compromises the security of this country whatsoever,” Tester said. “And quite frankly, it helps people like me become aware of a situation that I wasn’t aware of before because I don’t sit on that Intelligence Committee.”
No, but Tester does sit on the Homeland Security Committee, which exercises oversight on the kind of domestic intelligence collection that presumably would be a customer of the NSA under certain circumstances. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, and TSA all exist within DHS. NSA capabilities never came up once as part of DHS oversight? If so, that probably works in NSA’s defense, but what about all of the intel-law enforcement dot-connecting for which the DHS consolidation was intended?
If exposing a top-secret program doesn’t do damage to national security, then why was it classified so tightly to begin with? As Politico notes, there is a general rule about classification levels, which are calculated on the basis of how much damage exposure will do:
There are three basic levels of security clearance in the U.S. intelligence community: confidential, secret and top secret. In a touch of irony, given Snowden’s leak, those classification levels are based on how much damage would be done to national security if the information they cover were improperly revealed.
Confidential material, if leaked, could be “reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to the national security.” Secret material could cause “serious damage” to national security, and top secret information is classified as having the potential to cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if revealed.
As of October 2012, 4.91 million people held U.S. security clearances. About 71 percent of them hold the lower confidential or secret clearances, and the rest have top secret clearances, according to an annual report to Congress by the director of national intelligence.
There are other clearances that are task- or organization-centric too; this is a bit simplified, but communicates the general principle used in classifying material. If revealing the existence of PRISM and some of its operations didn’t damage national security — say, by allowing enemies to work around it — then it shouldn’t have been classified in the first place. It should have been made transparent to Congress and the American people so that we can have the “debate” Obama claimed to want this week, and which he provided in 2007-8 — if Tester is correct.
The number of cleared personnel have increased by more than 200,000 since October 2010. The number cleared at TS has dropped, though, from 1.436 million in October 2010 to 1.409 million last October. That suggests that we’re lowering classifications on some efforts while expanding them overall. Either way, Congress should spend some time looking at the scope of classifications and think about forcing a little more transparency.