I wonder if those who screamed loudest about the Plame leak and national security are equally outraged about this new leak?
Pointing out this vile hypocrisy must be the zingiest zinger that ever zinged a zingee. They’re right, in way. Few of us who are upset about the outing of Valerie Plame are viscerally upset about the NSA leak, which we tend to see as a classic whistleblower scenario. As a dedicated Plame screamer, let me try to reply. (NOTE: Update below the fold.)
First, the people who leaked about the existence of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program believed that they were exposing unlawful behavior. (If so, they’d be in good company.) Orin Kerr, in his useful write-up of James Risen’s new book on the subject, quotes Risen as saying “[s]everal government officials who know about the NSA operation have come forward to talk about it because they are deeply troubled by it, . . . [t]hey strongly believe that the president’s secret order is in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches.”
A few chuckleheads have tried to paint the Plame leak as an act of whistleblowing against the CIA. The Wall Street Journal and FOX News’ John Gibson have even proposed that Karl Rove deserves a medal for leaking her identity. But even in the worst scenario, Valerie Plame is simply accused of making a bad or nepotistic personnel recommendation to her superiors by suggesting her husband for the unpaid trip to Niger. If that were true, it’s not very admirable, but it’s not against the law. If I accept every word out of John Gibson’s mouth, I might accept that Plame deserved a reprimand. Maybe bad personnel recommendations should even be punishable by firing. But does anyone really believe that undercover CIA agents should be punishable by exposure? If so, isn’t it time that the White house reveal the identities of Plame’s superiors, the “desk jockeys” who actually sent Wilson to Niger? And who hired Plame in the first place, anyhow?
Second, this may be the partisan in me speaking, but I find it much easier to understand how national security was damaged by the Plame leak than the NSA leak. The Bush Administration’s defenders often point out that Plame was safely inside the US when her identity was revealed, which is probably true. But the leak simultaneously revealed the identity of any covert CIA agent associated with Plame’s cover firm. At the same time, it revealed that any foreigner with current or past ties to Valerie Plame, or to her cover firm, is a likely intelligence asset. Further, it deprived the US of the services of an experienced WMD expert, and probably convinced a few people in the CIA organization that their cover was cheaper than a few points in the polls. This is a steep price to pay for greater insight into the staffing decisions of the CIA.
In the case of the NSA leak, I’m afraid that I don’t understand how it compromised our national security. In this comment thread, Professor Althouse writes:
There is reason to be more outraged (by the NSA leak over the Plame leak), because of the actual damage to national security. Ever think about that?
Unfortunately, she doesn’t elaborate about how the leak compromised national security. It isn’t obvious to me; I don’t understand how it would help a terrorist cell to know that their communications were subject to monitoring without warrants, versus with warrants. It’s not as if the leakers revealed “specifics about TSA strategies…, including specifics about how terrorists tend to react to the types of questioning at issue,” for example.
I’ve written to Althouse to ask if she would explain, and I’ll update this post if she she does.
Finally, there’s the subject of “poetic justice as fairness.” The double-standard in question is exactly mirrored by most of the Bush-backers. Are there any points to be deducted from people like Glenn Reynolds? He dismissed the Plame scandal as “officially bogus”, but demanded the heads of the editors at the New York Times for the NSA leak. Ann Althouse couldn’t care less about Valerie Plame, but is furious about the NSA leak. Powerline, same thing. I could go on. I realize that it’s only hypocrisy if the other guy does it, but come on. Is this where you want to hang your hat, guys?
UPDATE: Orin Kerr offers a reasonable explanation of why the administation wanted the program to be kept secret:
The details of the program from Risen’s book arguably explains the national security interest in keeping the domestic surveillance program a secret. It’s not that terrorists may suddenly realize that they may be monitored; that argument never made much sense, as every member of Al-Qaeda must know that they may be monitored. Rather, I suspect the security issue is twofold. In the short term, terrorist groups now know that they can stand a significantly better chance of hiding their communications from the NSA by chosing communications systems that don’t happen to route through the U.S. And in the long term, some countries may react to the disclosures of the program by redesigning their telecommunications networks so less traffic goes through the United States. The more people abroad know that the NSA can easily watch their communications routed through the U.S., the less people will be willing to route their communications through the U.S. Cf. Bruce Hayden’s comment. No doubt it was a long-term priority of the NSA to ensure that lots of international communications traffic was routed through the U.S., where the NSA could have much better access to it. Indeed, Risen’s book more or less says this. The disclosure of the program presumably helps frustrate that objective.
The thing is, through no fault of Orin Kerr, this doesn’t touch on the controversial part of the program. It only explains why we’d keep secret the fact that we were monitoring calls that were routed through the US, but both placed by and received by people outside the US. As Kerr notes, these non-domestic wiretaps are not prohibited by FISA. If the program simply took advantage of foreigner-to-foreigner communications that happened to route through the country, there would be no criminal infraction, and probably no leak to discuss.
Rather, the controversy is about warrantless domestic wiretaps, which are obviously routed through the United States. If there’s a legitimate national security interest in keeping those wiretaps secret, I’m not aware of it.