Why Was The NSA’s Snooping Secret?

Fallows is puzzled:

President Obama says that he is “happy to debate” the tradeoff between security and privacy. The truth is that we probably wouldn’t be having any such debate, and we certainly couldn’t have a fully informed debate, if this program (and others) remained classified. The greatest harm done by the 9/11 attacks was setting the US on a ratchet-track toward “preventive” wars overseas and security-state distortions at home. In withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has partially redressed the overseas aspect of that equation. (On the other hand: drones.) These leaks, which he denounces, may constitute our hope for redressing the domestic part.

And on the minus side, what about the harm of the PRISM revelations? Again at face value, it seems minimal. American citizens have learned that all their communications may have been intercepted. Any consequential terrorist or criminal group worth worrying about must have assumed this all along.

Eric Posner sees the issue differently:

I am sympathetic to those who believe that the general existence of a program of analyzing global metadata should have been made public. But I doubt meaningful democratic debate about the program would have been possible unless details were given, so that people actually understood what they were debating about. Details like who is targeted, and why, and on the basis of what evidence; details like what abuses might take place, and how they are corrected. Details about the involvement of private sector companies. Retrospective assessments of whether particular acts of surveillance were justified. But once the N.S.A. reveals the details of the policy, its effectiveness diminishes as targets learn how to evade it. I wish there were a solution to this problem but I don’t see it.

Yglesias chips in his two cents on the question.