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The new NSA chief is surprisingly measured about secrecy

July 1, 2014, at 9:12 AM
 

Contradicting just about every other intelligence official known to man, the new head of the National Security Agency, Michael S. Rogers, assesses the damage caused by the Edward Snowden leaks as "manageable."

He told The New York Times' David Sanger that while he had seen evidence that terrorists had discussed the NSA methods revealed by Snowden, "You have not heard me as the director say, 'Oh my God, the sky is falling.' I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterization."

This is a good thing to hear from the head of the NSA. It suggests to me that he is less enamored by the power of secrecy than many others in the intelligence community. Perhaps he has a more modern understanding of how intelligence should function in a society that craves more transparency and has the means itself to rapidly spread and collect information.

The "sky is falling" view comes from several places. One is a legitimate assessment of the damage that the leaking of the entire Snowden corpus could do. A tiny fraction of the documents Snowden took from the NSA has been published, and apparently, there is no news organization that has any plans to release them. Presumably, the reporters who have the files have protected them from foreign governments, too. (Why these organizations won't publish more than they have is an interesting question and the subject of much debate, but it's a separate question.)

A second source of anxiety about the existential threat posed by the Snowden leaks is less solid. The fraternity of secrecy bonds over secret knowledge. That knowledge is holy. If the knowledge is disseminated, the high-level secret-keepers aren't as special. They will protect their own like a Mama Grizzly, thank you Sarah Palin. I've noticed that this unquestioned belief in the sanctity of secrets is more pronounced among people who have been in the national security establishment for their entire lives.

One reason why Congress (and the courts) seem not to have been so aggressive in oversight is that they lacked permission to challenge the authority of the secret-keepers on their own terms. That's changing now, and we should be grateful it is. That's because rigorous oversight, if we want it, must be secret, because many secrets are legitimately secret. But if oversight will be immune from a standard of transparency, then the public must have confidence that the oversight mechanisms are strong.

 

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