By leaking classified intelligence documents, Edward Snowden transformed public awareness of the scale and scope of U.S. intelligence surveillance programs. But his actions are proving to be no less consequential for national security secrecy policy.
“These leaks have forced the Intelligence Community to rethink our approach to transparency and secrecy,” said Robert S. Litt, General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He spoke at a March 18 Freedom of Information Day program sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University Washington College of Law.
Mr. Litt made it clear that he did not approve of the Snowden leaks, which he said were unlawful and had “seriously damaged our national security.” Yet he stressed that the leaks have also prompted a reconsideration of previously accepted patterns of secrecy.
“We have had to reassess how we strike the balance between the need to keep secret the sensitive sources, methods and targets of our intelligence activities, and the goal of transparency with the American people about the rules and policies governing those activities.”
“One lesson that I have drawn from the recent events… is that we would likely have suffered less damage from the leaks had we been more forthcoming about some of our activities, and particularly about the policies and decisions behind those activities,” Mr. Litt said. (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the same point to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast last month.)
“Going forward, I believe that the Intelligence Community is going to need to be much more forward-leaning in what we tell the American people about what we do,” Mr. Litt said. “We need to scrutinize more closely what truly needs to be classified in order to protect what needs to be protected. And we need to move beyond the mindset of merely reacting to formal requests that we make information public, to a mindset of proactively making available as much information as we can, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods.”
“Greater disclosure to the public is necessary to restore the American people’s trust that intelligence activities are not only lawful and important to protecting our national security, but that they are appropriate and proportional in light of the privacy interests at stake. In the long run, our ability to protect the public requires that we have the public’s support,” Mr. Litt said.
While Mr. Litt’s remarks conveyed an overall message of beneficence, responsiveness, and good citizenship, they also had some peculiar features.
It is disconcerting to realize that the reassessment of classification policy described by Mr. Litt was not prompted by the diligent exercise of congressional oversight or by judicial review or by ordinary advocacy. Rather it was explicitly inspired by the Snowden leaks, which Mr. Litt described as “criminal.” The upshot is that leaks emerge as a uniquely powerful tool for shaping intelligence classification policy, while conventional checks and balances appear all but irrelevant by comparison.
Moreover, the purpose of the newfound push for greater transparency seems to be instrumental, not principled. In other words, it is driven by tactical considerations, not by statutory requirements or any other objective norm.
“I strongly believe that the best way to prevent the damage that leakers can cause is by increased transparency on our part,” Mr. Litt said. “Transparency can both lessen the incentive for disaffected employees to disclose our activities improperly, and provide the public appropriate context to evaluate leaks when they occur.”
That implies that what is needed is only as much transparency as it takes to achieve these imprecise and transient goals. It is a unilateral move that can be unilaterally reversed.
And then there is the fact that Mr. Litt’s rethinking of classification policy implies no new institutional reforms or externally-imposed constraints. Instead, the very same people who have classified too much up to now are suddenly expected to change course and to disclose more. It is not immediately clear how or why that would happen.
“There is no question that overclassification of information is a genuine problem,” Mr. Litt said. “So how do we deal with the problem of overclassification? I think that there are three principal steps we can take.”
“The first is to change the culture. We need high-level management emphasis on the problem of overclassification,” he said. To his credit, Mr. Litt has helped provide such emphasis.
“Second, we need to continue our efforts at proactive transparency– at reviewing information that we have historically protected to see whether, in fact, the overall public interest would better be served by releasing the information.” Significantly, however, he refrained from providing specific performance goals or benchmarks by which future progress could be measured.
“Finally, I think that those in the agencies who are responsible for responding to FOIA requests, and who are representing the government in FOIA litigation, need to look critically at all potentially responsive documents that are classified,” Mr. Litt said. “We should focus not on whether we can protect information, but whether we should.”
This is an interesting formulation. Most FOIA officers do not have authority to declassify records, and the adversarial nature of the FOIA process is rarely conducive to self-critical analysis of established agency policies even by more senior officials. But sometimes it is.
In 1997, the Federation of American Scientists filed suit against the CIA for release of the intelligence budget total for that year. The CIA ultimately decided that it could not defend its position of classifying the figure, according to an internal draft statement that was prepared for DCI George Tenet and released by the Clinton Library just last week.
“In order to defend this lawsuit,” the Tenet statement read, “I, as head of the Intelligence Community, would have had to sign a declaration to the court that release of the figure in question could cause serious damage to the national security. I found that, in good conscience, I could not attest to that statement.”
But such judgments are fluid and can be fleeting. Two years later, in response to another lawsuit for the 1999 budget figure, Director Tenet had no trouble declaring under oath that “Disclosure of… the total appropriation reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security in several ways.”
So spontaneous gestures of openness and transparency, as welcome as they may be, are imperfect substitutes for systemic change and external accountability.
News organizations have now released some 1,300 pages of classified records leaked by Edward Snowden, according to a tally by cryptome.org. In response, US intelligence agencies have declassified and disclosed approximately twice that many.
“Our commitment to increased transparency will continue,” Mr. Litt said.