Excellent question from Ramesh Ponnuru. Does the answer have to do with simple natsec force of habit? I.e. when you’ve got an intelligence tool as ambitious and sophisticated as PRISM, you take no chances with it. Need-to-know-basis only. Virtually everything else in Washington is kept unnecessarily secret these days. Why wouldn’t a program at the top of the intel food chain be kept secret too?
Or, as Ramesh suggests, does the answer have to do with politics? When you’re snooping on the entire electorate, maybe you think twice about letting the electorate know that.
Only one of those answers is a legitimate reason for secrecy.
If so much information is being gathered about almost everyone to figure out patterns, then it’s not as though you’d be tipping off a particular target that we were on to him. Would publicizing the order that this information be collected have given away technical secrets to our enemies (or rather, at this point, has publicizing it done so)? I don’t see how. I can see why the government might want to keep this data-mining program secret to avoid a political backlash, but that is of course not a good reason for concealing it. Is there a better one?
In other words, without revealing which particular tech behemoths are participating in PRISM (and I use the term “participating” loosely), what national-security harm could have come from announcing that, yes, most Internet communications are also being data-mined and occasionally intercepted for intelligence purposes? One obvious possibility is that if the bad guys know that the entire Internet’s being bugged, they’ll get offline altogether. That’s good news in the sense that it’ll make communicating/planning harder, but it’s bad news in that it makes them harder to find. The guy responsible for 9/11 did pretty well staying hidden for 10 years by communicating via courier only. If the CIA has a net over the entire ‘Net, then naturally they want jihadis to use it. Also, it seems only logical to me that if you’re gathering this much data, you’re not just using it to spot terrorists. The feds are surely using it for foreign espionage purposes too. Imagine what kind of foreign-policy puzzle pieces they’re finding by harvesting e-mails, even from private accounts, that foreign diplomats are using to communicate with people back home. Now that PRISM’s out of the bag, countermeasures will be developed.
But yeah, needless to say, the main rationale is probably political.
Speaking of good questions, here’s another one from Geraldo Rivera(!): Why are these intelligence bombshells suddenly bursting all over the place?
“Isn’t it interesting that we get these massive leaks within the last 24 hours, we’ve gotten leaks on the existence of two super-secret programs … how did we discover them? We discovered them by leaks,” Rivera told the hosts Friday morning on “Fox & Friends.”…
“So this is a stick in the eye to the Obama administration by someone within the administration, says, ‘Look, you’ve been so ham-handed with The Associated Press … the James Rosen snooping, and just to show you how impotent you are, here are two more even more massive leaks of programs that you’re doing with surveillance,’” Rivera said.
Probably true. WaPo said in its bombshell story on PRISM yesterday that its source is someone who works in intelligence who’s upset at the program’s intrusiveness. Is that also true of whoever leaked the NSA/Verizon order to Glenn Greenwald, or is that person upset for different reasons? I saw theories kicked around yesterday on Twitter ranging from “intel community’s revenge on Obama for Benghazi scapegoating” to “hackers swiped it and leaked it.” The NSA/PRISM stuff isn’t the only interesting leak lately either: Just yesterday, NBC got hold of a classified report showing that roughly a quarter of drone attacks in Pakistan over a 14-month period were controversial “signature strikes.” One interesting coincidence in all this is that, after three years of waiting, Bradley Manning’s court-martial finally began this week. Maybe a person or persons sympathetic to him inside U.S. intel wanted to retaliate, or make a statement about transparency, by leaking stuff far more sensitive than what Manning’s accused of leaking. If so, does that mean other shoes are still to drop?
Update: One more good question via Gabe Malor: If the FBI, via the NSA, already knows who’s talking to whom, why did the DOJ need to subpoena the AP’s phone records and get a search warrant for James Rosen’s e-mails? The only possible answer, I think, is admissibility in court. They can’t offer PRISM data as evidence (yet), so they have to go through traditional legal channels.