How much damage did the Times do? part 2

The New York Times exposed the National Security Agency’s terrorist eavesdropping program on December 16, 2005, in the celebrated story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. The Times had held off publishing the story for the previous year at the urgent imprecation of the Bush administration, which claimed that the program had generated intelligence invaluable to the prevention of terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Times said that it published the story out of concerns about the program’s legality, although Risen, Lichtblau and the Times editors have shown no particular understanding of the legal issues involved. Moreover, the Times showed no concern whatsoever over the questionable legality of its own conduct disclosing the existence of such a highly classified intelligence program.

The questionable legality of Risen and Lichtblau’s conduct was reflected in the anonymity they granted to their sources. In their story they noted that they had granted anonymity to the “nearly a dozen current and former officials” who were the sources for the story. Risen and Lichtblau stated that they had granted these sources anonymity “because of the classified nature of the program.” Implicit in the Times’s rationale was the recognition that the unauthorized disclosure of such classified information is a serious crime.

The Times’s disclosure ended the program’s usefulness. Whatever intelligence the program generated must have promptly dried up. What was the Times thinking? Times executive editor Bill Keller purports to have satisfied himself that the publication of the story did “not expose any technical intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.”

The Bush administration begged to differ. President Bush flatly asserted that publication of the story “damage[d] our national security and put[] our citizens at risk.” Keller must have thought he was in a better position than Bush to assess the impact of the program’s disclosure. Nevertheless, the then-sober Joe Klein reported:

It would have been a scandal if the NSA had not been using these tools to track down the bad guys. There is evidence that the information harvested helped foil several plots and disrupt al-Qaeda operations.

There is also evidence, according to U.S. intelligence officials, that since the New York Times broke the story, the terrorists have modified their behavior, hampering our efforts to keep track of them–but also, on the plus side, hampering their ability to communicate with one another.

Among the subjects addressed in the five Inspectors’ General unclassified report on the NSA’s terrorist eavesdropping program is the effectiveness of the program. The report summarizes the views of the FBI and intelligence agencies at pages 31-36. This is the part of the report with which Risen and Lichtblau open their story in yesterday’s New York Times. The Risen/Lichtblau story runs with the headline “U.S. wiretapping of limited value, officials report.” A more accurate headline would be: “How much damage did we do?”

Not surprisingly, Risen and Lichtblau are unreliable guides to what the report has to say on the question. The picture presented in the report is clouded by information that still remains classified, and the strength of the testimony to the program’s effectiveness varies among the agencies.

Risen and Lichtblau, however, filter out some powerful testimony. One does not learn from Risen and Lichtblau, for example, that former NSA head and Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden provides this assessment:

Hayden said the PSP [i.e., the President’s surveillance program] information allowed [Intelligence Community] leaders to make valuable judgments regarding the allocation of scarce national security resources. Hayden described the PSP as an “early warning system” for terrorist threats. Hayden told the ODNI OIG that the PSP was extremely valuable in protecting the United States from an al-Qaida attack. He cited several examples of where he said the PSP information was used to disrupt al-Qaida operatives or assist in terrorism investigations.

How much damage did the Times do? At the least, readers should be given a fair account of the information on offer in the report. I believe the report suggests that the correct answer to the question is “probably quite a bit.”

Click here for part 1 of this post.

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