Monday, January 09, 2006

Tom Maguire passes along this question:

"Explain to me... how exactly it damages national security to reveal the fact that we spy on people without secret warrants instead of the fact that we spy on people with secret warrants?"

... which got me thinking.

The only way I see national security being hurt by the NYT story on the NSA monitoring programs (along with all the related follow-up printed elsewhere) is if our enemies learned from the stories that their conversations were being monitored, when they previously were under the impression that their conversations were NOT being monitored.

In other words, our enemies had to have learned something from the stories in order for there to be a breach... if they already knew (whether for sure or even only as a really good guess) that their conversations were being monitored and were acting accordingly, then there's been no change to the status quo. And - to me - no change to the status quo, no harm, no foul, no harm to national security.

Now, in order for our enemies to have learned something from the stories, they must have learned (or now suspect) that conversations they thought were NOT being monitored were in fact being monitored.

And, in order for this to be the case, they must (prior to the NYT story) have:

(1) Thought the NSA lacked the technical ability to track their conversations, and learned from the NYT story that the NSA does have the technical ability to do so, or

(2) Figured the NSA had the technical ability to track their conversations, but only in theory, as the NSA wasn't able to identify the right people to target, and they learned from the the NYT story that the NSA did in fact know who to target, or

(3) Figured the NSA had the technical ability to track their conversations and knew who to target, but thought the NSA wasn't doing so because they lacked the legal approval to do so, and learned from the NYT story that, legal or not, the NSA was in fact tracking their conversations.

I think the 1st and 2nd can be pretty easily dismissed as possibilities. As far as I have read, there hasn't been much at all on the technical aspects of the monitoring programs and nothing at all that would alert our enemies that the NSA was on to any particular one of them (note: I'm open to being shown where such details were in fact disclosed).

And I think the 3rd scenario is also very unlikely. Assuming our enemies figured the NSA knew how and who to target (a safe assumption for our enemies to make, given how paranoid they are rumored to be), there's no way they would have blabbed away, counting on a supposed lack of legal authority to keep the NSA from listening in. First, I doubt that the terrorists are well versed in the law, certainly not to the point where their legal advisors would have given them the go-ahead to not worry about being monitored.

And even if they were somewhat versed in the relevant law, blabbing away anyway thinking the NSA wouldn't monitor them without a warrant they figured the NSA didn't have would be as silly as a mob boss knowing the FBI was after them, knowing the FBI knew what phones or social club to wiretap, but going ahead and blabbing away anyway, figuring the FBI didn't have or wouldn't be able to get a warrant. It just wouldn't happen. Our enemies may be evil, but they're not stupid.

So... I am left wondering.... where's the harm?

Now, this is not to say that laws weren't broken by those who leaked the story to the NYT... revealing classified materials to those not authorized to receive it is illegal... but illegal doesn't necessarily mean there's been any harm to our national security.

And, to repeat my question from yesterday, if the leak caused damage to our national security, why did the Bush Administration wait a year before starting an investigation into the leak?