By Davis George
As the controversy surrounding the NSA’s intelligence on citizens in the homeland heats up, it is critically important to take a step back and consider the broader implications that intelligence disclosures have on the wider intelligence community as a whole.
Unfortunately, the simple knowledge of these programs by the public, and more threateningly, by parties that are hostile to the United States, could threaten their effectiveness. The Washington Post reports that the number of people on the US’s terrorist watch list has increased by roughly 1000% over the last four years, with around 1 million people on the list by 2009. All of these individuals, especially the actual terrorists on the list, pay careful attention to the government’s actions and abilities to intercept their communications. As more intelligence capabilities, including PRISM, are detected, terrorists attenuate their methods to adapt to threats to their secrecy.
Early intelligence is a necessity for stopping terrorist threats. Michael Chertoff writes that terrorists operate under the covers of darkness and deception, meaning that by infiltrating these dark corridors of heinous communication, the United States has a simple avenue to intercepting threats before they even materialize. For instance, the Heritage Foundation assesses that in 90% of real threats, intelligence gathered would have been able to stop the threat before it even occurred.
However, the Washington Post reports that the House has just voted to completely revise rules regarding disclosure formerly afforded presidential discretion. Previously, sensitive and covert intelligence regarding counter-terror operations were only disclosed to a handful of Congressional and Judiciary Sub-Committees on counter-terror. The disclosure of information to the public poses a serious threat to national security. As Antone Gonsalves writes, disclosure of more information can push terrorists into harder to track channels for communications, eventually resulting in US agencies losing track of these terrorist organizations, and subsequently, being unable to keep a hold on their operations. In fact, Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg notes that currently the US can only index and search through about 0.004% of the internet, making the terrorist communications that travel through this miniscule section a vital component in stopping terror. And the New York Times explicates that following the leaks by Edward Snowden, intelligence officials saw a marked decrease in the number of terrorist communications moving through known networks. Inadvertently moving communication away from this critical choke point could seriously harm our nation’s ability to adequately pre-empt terrorism.
Further, disclosure by media organizations also has the severe potential of harming informants who are brave enough to either report on, or even infiltrate terrorist organizations. The backlash perpetrated on these American heroes as a result of disclosure is severe and irreversible, as terrorist organizations only negotiate in one currency: blood. Unfortunately, the LA Times reports that in the case of a specific Yemeni operative who funneled terrorist information to the FBI, disclosure has left the informant helpless and in the hands of terrorists, who have conclusively rooted him out as the “mole”. British and Saudi allies were reported to be furious about the foiling of this informant’s vital cooperation.
When weighing the costs and benefits of disclosures in today’s dynamically changing world of terrorist threats, a careful analysis of the after effects of such disclosures is important to ensure the US’ continued offensive capability against terrorism. It’s always vital to remember that as we watch terrorists, they peer back at us.