A Slightly-Buried Lede

Barton Gellman published another highly classified document today, this time exposing the details of the intelligence community’s “black budget,” which governs covert and other secret programs. Of note is the lack of any language detailing abuse or misconduct, ostensibly the reason for these leaks to begin with. Reporters report, and it would be silly to expect them not to report on this — but the complete abandon of any sort of “watchdog” or whistleblower language (the term doesn’t even appear in the story) is a genuinely new turn of events from a journalism perspective. (As is the focus on the CIA, which has nearly double the budget of the NSA despite the attention lavished upon the latter organization).

However, what interests me is a section, buried at the end of a report filled with interesting, but not necessarily in-the-public-interest details. Here it is:

The budget includes a lengthy section on funding for counter-intelligence programs designed to protect against the danger posed by foreign intelligence services as well as betrayals from within the U.S. spy ranks.

The document describes programs to “mitigate insider threats by trusted insiders who seek to exploit their authorized access to sensitive information to harm U.S. interests.”

The agencies had budgeted for a major counterintelligence initiative in fiscal 2012, but most of those resources were diverted to an all-hands, emergency response to successive floods of classified data released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

For this year, the budget promised a renewed “focus . . . on safeguarding classified networks” and a strict “review of high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors” — the young, nontraditional computer coders with the skills the NSA needed.

Among them was Snowden, then a 29-year-old contract computer specialist who had been trained by the NSA to circumvent computer network security. He was copying thousands of highly classified documents at an NSA facility in Hawaii, and preparing to leak them, as the agency embarked on a security sweep.

“NSA will initiate a minimum of 4,000 periodic reinvestigations of potential insider compromise of sensitive information,” according to the budget, scanning its systems for “anomalies and alerts.”

The Post is already being praised for preserving “necessary secrets” and “not compromising programs” with this leak — that remains to be seen. Frankly, because the reporters making the decision about what to publish do not understand the scope of activity involved, nor the thinking behind it (there’s no way they could have), I will gently suggest they’re not ideally positioned to make that assessment.

But more immediately: an insider threat program was derailed because of Wikileaks. Specifically, the government panicked so strongly about the threat caused by leaking documents classified at a lower level than this document that it diverted resources from the very program that possibly would have exposed Edward Snowden before he could have leaked.

Lots of people, opposed to all forms of government secrecy, will applaud this report as a great moment in Transparency, capital-T. And I do think Barton Gellman and his reporting team deserve praise for not publishing full programmatic details online — that truly would have presented a grave threat to national security. But I just don’t understand how honest observers can look at the massive, systemic destruction Chelsea Manning’s leaks caused and still say, with a straight face, that they did no damage. They did enormous damage, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath of it.