Good Disclosures and Bad Ones

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 27 2008 11:08 PM

Good Disclosures and Bad Ones

If I can wade into the debate on the Times ' publication of the Risen & Lichtblau NSA wiretapping story, I think the Times acted relatively carefully but James Risen's subsequent solo book "State of War" was quite reckless.  The original story by the Times didn't explain specifically how the wiretapping had occurred, and therefore didn't give America's enemies a roadmap to avoiding future interception. The original story just said that calls and e-mails were "intercepted," which in and of itself doesn't reveal anything about sources and methods.

In contrast, Risen's solo book gave our enemies the roadmap.   It explained that the NSA program took advantage of the fact that much of the world's telephone and Internet trafffic happens to be routed through U.S. switches.  When passing through the U.S., the book explained, the NSA could and did access the foreign-to-foreign calls that were momentarily inside the U.S. No warrant needed; everything was available and easily vacuumed up.

If you're part of a foreign government or a terrorist group, that's extremely valuable information to have.  You now know to avoid any technologies that might inadvertently route communications through the U.S. because the NSA is going to look at everything that touches the States.  Want to avoid wiretapping?  Stick to communications systems that stay local.  The NSA may still be able to get snippets, but they won't get everything.

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I don't know how to calculate the long-term damage to our national security caused by this disclosure in Risen's book.  But I would expect it was (and will be) enormous.

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