A reporter takes a mobile phone picture of National Security Agency (NSA) Director US Army General Keith Alexander, June 18, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
This story originally appeared at Truthdig. Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).
Secrecy is for the convenience of the state. To support military adventures and budgets, vast troves of US government secrets are routinely released not by lone dissident whistleblowers but rather skilled teams of government officials. They engage in coordinated propaganda campaigns designed to influence public opinion. They leak secrets compulsively to advance careers or justify wars and weapons programs, even when the material is far more threatening to national security than any revealed by Edward Snowden.
Remember the hoary accounts in the first week of August trumpeting a great intelligence coup warranting the closing of nearly two dozen US embassies in anticipation of an Al Qaeda attack? Advocates for the surveillance state jumped all over that one to support claims that NSA electronic interceptions revealed by Snowden were necessary, and that his whistleblowing had weakened the nation’s security. Actually, the opposite is true.
The Al Qaeda revelation, first reported August 2 by Eric Schmitt in The New York Times, came not from the classified information released by Snowden but rather from leaks deliberately provided by US intelligence officials eager to show that the NSA electronic data-gathering program was necessary. On Sunday, Schmitt co-wrote another Times article, similarly quoting American authorities, conceding that the officially condoned August leaks had caused more damage than any of the leaked information attributed to Snowden.
That’s because the government leak, which revealed that the United States had intercepted messages between two top Al Qaeda leaders discussing a pending attack, resulted in a sharp decrease in their use of the communications channel that was being monitored by US authorities, leaving the US officials to try to find new avenues of surveillance.
According to the story, “As the nation’s spy agencies assess the fallout from disclosures about their surveillance programs, some government analysts and senior officials have made a startling finding: the impact of a leaked terrorist plot by Al Qaeda in August has caused more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.”
Schmitt and his New York Times editors have stressed that the original Times story did not go as far as one in the McClatchy newspapers two days later, which identified the “senior operatives of Al Qaeda,” as they were referenced in the Times story, as being the terrorist group’s reputed top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who is said to head Al Qaeda in Yemen. The Times, which was leaked those names, kept them out of the first story at the request of “senior American intelligence officials” but printed them when those officials granted permission after the McClatchy story appeared.
The Times and McClatchy stories, along with another on CNN, were based on the deliberate leaks of highly classified information intended to advance the case for extensive government data surveillance at a time when the NSA program was being widely criticized in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. US officials, who were operating in an approved manner when they provided the pro-surveillance but still highly classified material, will not be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act. Not so Snowden, whose revelation of the historically unprecedented intrusion into the private communications of American citizens as well as of foreigners who are supposed to be US allies, proved so embarrassing.
The material released by Snowden does not represent a threat to legitimate US national security interests but rather reveals the arrogance of government power. As the Times cited Sunday in an example of the damage of Snowden’s disclosures: “Diplomatic ties have also been damaged, and among the results was the decision by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, to postpone a state visit to the United States in protest over revelations that the (NSA) agency spied on her, her top aides and Brazil’s largest company, the oil giant Petrobras.”
Embarrassing indeed! It mocks the claims of those in both political parties who are ever eager to justify the antics of the surveillance state, like Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who told ABC’s This Week that the “NSA’s sole purpose is to get information intelligence to protect Americans from attack.” Or Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, quoted on CNN following its breathless report on the August intercept of an impending Yemen attack that never occurred. “Al Qaeda is on the rise in this part of the world and the NSA program is proving its worth yet again,” he said.
Rubbish. Al Qaeda is hardly on the rise anywhere in the world, with much of its leadership now dead and the remaining elements barely able to communicate. But until a more vigorous enemy turns up, the overblown terrorist enemy used to justify the vastly profitable surveillance state, with selective scary news leaks, is all the military-industrial complex has got.
Zoë Carpenter reviews legislative efforts to curb NSA surveillance.