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Will Leaked Secrets Damage Efforts by the U.S. Intelligence Community?

September 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Leaks by Edward Snowden and other recent disclosures have revealed the scale of U.S. surveillance efforts. Judy Woodruff examines the impact of those revelations with Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies and former Department of Homeland Security official Stewart Baker.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the press in May, he revealed extensive U.S. spying operations carried out on enemies and allies alike.

Last week, The Washington Post published a detailed account of the so-called black budget, money the U.S. government spends on spy operations. It was also revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies have been reading the personal e-mails of the presidents of Mexico and Brazil.

At his press conference with the Swedish prime minister in Stockholm today, President Obama denied that the U.S. was eavesdropping.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s e-mails or listening to their phone calls.

What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern. And there may be situations in which we’re gathering information just because we can that doesn’t help with us our national security, but does raise questions in terms of whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, I’m joined by Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post. He’s written many stories based on the Snowden leaks. Plus, Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, and Stewart Baker. He’s former general counsel at the National Security Agency.

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Thank you, all three, for being with us.

Craig Whitlock, let me start with you and ask you about what we just heard the president commenting on. There have been several sets of disclosures. One set did have to do with the U.S. reading the e-mails of the leaders of these countries that are supposed to be allies. Tell us a little bit about what those disclosures were.

CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, I think as the president described, in a backdoor manner, the National Security Agency and other U.S. spy agencies conduct surveillance on a pretty astounding scale worldwide, and some of these embarrassing parts of it are starting to come to light, including communications, e-mails, phone calls involving the leadership of countries that are our partners and allies.

And I think these countries maybe suspected this sort of thing was going on, but with a wink and a nod, they wouldn’t inquire about it. Now it’s coming to light, and it’s embarrassing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when the president says it’s not happening, how do you square that?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, he didn’t say it’s not happening. He said, sometimes, we gather up in our surveillance things that maybe we weren’t targeting.

But, you know, you have to listen to him again. He didn’t deny that it was happening. He just said maybe it wasn’t intentional.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, then there’s another set of disclosures. In fact, you wrote about this today in The Washington Post, and that is the story about al-Qaida trying for several years now to disable American drones. Give us — give us that story in a nutshell.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yes, this was another revelation in some of the documents that Snowden gave to us, which was that U.S. spy agencies for some time have been monitoring al-Qaida’s research and development efforts to shoot down or jam or even hijack drones, which, of course, have been the bane of their existence.

And they haven’t been able to do that yet, but there is evidence that they have been able to mount some rudimentary electronic warfare to try and defend themselves. And it’s pretty striking the degree and energy in which they have put into that effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They haven’t been able to do it so far, as far as we know?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Not so far as we know, but there are vulnerabilities in how these drones fly, and so you can see why they would try and target that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the other — one other — there have been a number of disclosures, but the other major one that your newspaper, The Washington Post, reported last week, was the black budget, the so-called black budget, the actual amount of money, what is it, $52 billion being spent every year on intelligence gathering.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right.

And the government, to its credit, would say each year this is how much we spend on the black budget. But they would give one number, and this is it. What these documents that Snowden provide said, here is what our priorities are, here’s what the different agencies — the fact that the CIA gets about 30 percent of that, much more than the National Security Agency did.

And the details on their priorities, what they were spending it on all had been secret for years. So this document, 200 pages almost, really outlines to Congress what this money is being spent on, what parts of the world, what kinds of intelligence gathering, and that had all been secret for pretty much ever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of details in there.

So, let me — Stewart Baker, Kate Martin, let me bring the two of you into this conversation.

First to you, Stewart Baker, what about this black budget? Is this information that should be in the public realm?

STEWART BAKER, National Security Agency Former General Counsel: No, under no circumstances.

Even the — you know, 95 percent of it was withheld by The Post, which was persuaded that it was too dangerous to release. And even the things they released tell the Syrians and the Iranians and al-Qaida what we know about them, and, more importantly, what they have successfully hidden from us. That tells them what’s working and what’s not. It’s going to set us back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it’s done damage, it will do damage?

STEWART BAKER: Yes.

And I think the fact that it does damage without revealing any scandals — I didn’t see any scandals in the Post coverage — tells us something about Snowden. He didn’t release this as a whistle-blower because of a scandal. He released it, as far as I can tell, to do as much damage to the U.S. intelligence community as he could do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Martin, how do you see this in terms of damage or not?

KATE MARTIN, Center for National Security Studies: Well, I don’t think it’s at all clear how much damage there will be from The Post’s disclosures about what was in the document.

The Obama administration, for example, in its defense of the Syrian action, has talked about intercepting Syrian military officers talking to each other. So that’s not a secret. And when I read the story about the black budget, it’s not clear how much of that is actually a secret from our adversaries.

I think what is a secret and what we need more of is the question of, how much money are we spending on the intelligence community? How are we spending it, not the details, not who are we paying off, and whether or not it’s effective. And that’s a hard balance to strike. How do you end up with a public discussion about that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying more information needs to be out, not less?

KATE MARTIN: Well, more information than had been released by the administration does need to be out.

And I think one of the contexts for the Snowden disclosures is that there’s been too much secrecy, and now there’s too much disclosure by somebody who wasn’t authorized to disclose and hadn’t any basis for deciding what to disclose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stewart Baker, what about another set of disclosure that we were just discussing, this spying or eavesdropping on personal communications of leaders of other countries who are supposed to be American allies? Damaging or not?

STEWART BAKER: It is damaging in the short run, because it focuses a lot of attention on something that is usually understood by everyone, but not talked about.

The fact is, our allies all spy on us. It’s just part of international affairs. But no one likes to see it and be reminded of it in such a dramatic way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about today’s disclosure in The Washington Post again about al-Qaida trying for several years to disable U.S. drones?

STEWART BAKER: I’m hoping they can persuade them that if eight of them go out into a field and all turn on their cell phones at once, that that might work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

STEWART BAKER: Because we will target them most — particularly easy then.

No, I think that’s a fool’s errand for them. That’s my guess. It’s not going to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don’t see that as particularly damaging, is my question, just…

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART BAKER: Only — only in — on sort of byplay. That is to say, it might tell al-Qaida which of their communications have been intercepted, because they will say, yes, I remember saying that. So something I was — that was in the room when I said that is a source for U.S. intelligence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Martin, what about these other two elements? How damaging or not?

KATE MARTIN: Well, it’s hard to say as an outsider.

On the other hand, when I read the story by Mr. Whitlock about the — what al-Qaida is trying to do with regard to our drones, it looked to me like lots of that was already in the public domain. I think one of the things that the government hasn’t gotten its hands around is that, in the new Internet globalized age, it’s very hard to keep information locked up.

They don’t have very good systems, it looks like, for keeping it locked up. But it’s all — it’s out there anyway. And the problem and the importance of it Is that we need to have a democratic debate and understanding about what our intelligence community is doing and whether or not it’s doing it effectively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying this makes that more possible.

Craig Whitlock, just finally, back to you, The Post made it very clear that you were not disclosing everything you knew, everything you were given by Edward Snowden. How do you make that decision? Where do you draw the line?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, each line is — each story is a different line.

And, in general, we don’t disclose things that would bring any — put anyone in personal danger who works for the U.S. government. We wouldn’t disclosure things that might jeopardize military systems, pretty obvious secrets like that. On things like the budget, it’s a little more difficult. These are numbers. This is policy matters.

It’s something that the government has kept secret for a long time. We felt pretty strongly that that’s something, as Kate had said, the public deserves to have a debate about. Operational details, we wouldn’t disclose that, but sometimes that information is twinned together, and you have to sort of figure out how to separate it out.

It’s not an easy process, and it’s one we’re pretty careful about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clearly an ongoing discussion.

We thank you, all three, Craig Whitlock, Kate Martin, Stewart Baker. Thank you.

KATE MARTIN: Thank you.