The Intercept has just released an interesting document from its Snowden stash: an unredacted damage assessment of the New York Times’ 2005 exposure of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program — a program that saw the agency monitoring the emails and phone calls of US citizens.
It’s not that the government hasn’t made damage assessments public before. It just does it very, very rarely and mostly for self-serving reasons. The most recent publications of damage assessments were in response to the Snowden leaks. The released assessments were heavily-redacted and made plenty of unfounded assertions about the damage done to the national security infrastructure by the leaks.
This 2005 damage assessment was never released. It was purely an internal document. Thanks to it being part of Snowden’s package of leaked documents, it can be read without the sort of excessive redaction the government deploys when discussing even the most inane (or obvious) aspects of national security.
Such was the internal distress at the possible exposure of this surveillance program that the government managed to delay its publication for a year. Despite its successful pushback, the assessment here is no different that the assessment of the Snowden leaks. In other words, mostly speculation backed by very little support.
The memo gives a general explanation of what terrorists might do in reaction to the information revealed. It was “likely” that terrorists would stop using phones in favor of mail or courier, and use encryption and code words. They could also plant false information, knowing the U.S. government was listening. But the leaked program had not “been noted in adversary communications,” according to the memo. It gave no specific examples of investigations or targets that had or might be impacted by the revelations.
Once you get past the obvious suggestion that terrorists will adapt communication methods in light of presumably-unknown information, you get to more detailed discussion of the NYT article itself. The assessment breaks down every statement of fact in the article and provides its corresponding level of classification.
(TS//SI//STLW//NF//OC) "President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity."
(TS//SI//STL WIINF//OC) (NSA) "monitored the international telephone calls (communications to the U.S.) and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years … to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda…"
(TS//SI//STLW//NF//OC) "NSA eavesdrops (under this program) without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time." … the number monitored … may have reached … the thousands"
(S//SI) "Overseas, about 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored (by NSA) at one time."
Oddly, the government considers the most obvious possible outcome of the exposure of this program (that terrorists would alter communications in light of this info) to be "classified."
(C) (The article) would alert would-be terrorists (inside the United States) that they might be under scrutiny.
If there was a battle for American hearts and minds to be fought in the wake of this publication, you’d think the agency would want this conclusion made public (preferably with some supporting evidence), rather than bury it with other classified documents.
Nearly a decade down the road, the government has yet to offer any solid proof that the New York Times’ article resulted in compromised capabilities or surveillance programs.
“To this day we’ve never seen any evidence — despite all the claims they made to keep us from publishing — that it did any tangible damage to national security. This is further confirmation of that,” [New York Times writer Eric] Lichtblau told The Intercept.
In fact, the only clear response to the publication of this leaked info didn’t take the form of altered collection techniques or additional terrorist attacks. It took the form of a full-blown DOJ investigation, involving 25 FBI agents and five prosecutors. This too, resulted in a whole lot of nothing.
The leak and the response to it indicates the government was more worried about US citizens, rather than its foreign adversaries, finding out about what it was up to.