The NSA’s secrecy is bad for the NSA

June 19, 2013

To quell public concerns about its domestic surveillance programs, the National Security Agency on Tuesday provided new information about safeguards designed to protect Americans' privacy. More transparency is welcome, but the disclosures raise the question: why wasn't this information made public a long time ago?

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, second from right, testifies on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, second from right, testifies on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

At a rare unclassified session of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Deputy NSA Director John Inglis said that there are only 22 officials with the authority to approve queries of the NSA's massive database of domestic calling records, and that only seven NSA officials have authority to approve disclosure of information about Americans to other agencies such as the FBI.

Inglis said that the database is only used for counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence efforts, not ordinary police work. The NSA has collected calling records from millions of phone numbers, but Inglis claimed that in 2012, NSA analysts only queried the database for information about 300 U.S. phone numbers.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been seeking this kind of information for years. But until Edward Snowden's leaks, the government has steadfastly refused their requests, arguing that any public discussion of the programs would endanger national security. Indeed, last year the Obama administration refused to give even a ballpark estimate of the number of Americans whose information has been collected.

It's hard to imagine how making these banal disclosures a few years ago could have endangered national security. Knowing what internal process the NSA uses to review surveillance requests, for example, can't possible give terrorists clues about how to evade surveillance.

In his testimony, NSA Director Keith Alexander suggested that the existence of the surveillance program itself had been put in jeopardy by Ed Snowden's leaks. He described the NSA's FISA spying powers as "the best counterterrorism tools that we have to go after these guys. We can't lose those capabilities."

That's puzzling because the NSA has exactly the same surveillance capabilities it had two weeks ago. What Snowden's disclosures clearly did do, however, was to produce a lot of negative media coverage. Alexander is worried that public disclosure will lead to a public backlash that will cause Congress to revise the laws that authorized the programs in the first place. But if that's his concern, Alexander's battle is not with terrorism, but with democracy.

Indeed, the NSA's excessive secrecy arguably endangered its own programs. If the agency had been more transparent about how its surveillance programs worked, it might have persuaded the public that there were adequate safeguards in place, building broad public support for the programs.

Instead, by acting like it had something to hide, the NSA has caused many Americans to assume the worst. For example, 38 percent of Americans believe the NSA can listen to their phone calls without a warrant, despite the agency's claims to the contrary. By keeping the American people in the dark, they ensured only that if and when the program was exposed, it would cast the NSA in the worst possible light.

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Brad Plumer · June 19, 2013