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.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.