Which Leaks Matter?

Ben Wittes and Robert Chesney explain why it’s a mistake to conflate the recent leaks about PRISM and Verizon:

At a high-level of abstraction, it does make some sense to lump these stories together. They both concern the tension between privacy and the need to collect intelligence in the context of evolving technologies—and the leaks, of course, came from the same source. But at another level, conflating these two stories is a big mistake. They are by no means of equal weight and importance when it comes to informing the public about the government’s data-collection and monitoring powers. The Post story actually tells us little we did not already know—other than operational details that may prove of considerable use to those seeking to avoid NSA surveillance. By contrast, the Guardian story reveals a genuinely surprising and significant government legal position—albeit one apparently accepted by the FISA Court and congressional oversight leaders for a number of years—with important implications for the future of big data in government collection, surveillance, and intelligence authorities. …

These fleeting glimpses into the shadow worlds of counterterrorism, counterespionage, and counterproliferation are not always a bad thing. Sometimes, they prompt needed debate; even the White House has said that the president “welcomes the discussion of the trade-off between security and civil liberties” that the Verizon disclosure will produce. Some secret activities may be especially unwise or even illegal, so the proper amount of leaking in a healthy democracy is surely not zero. But it is equally true that, in some cases, exposure of classified information achieves little, while risking much. Snowden’s disclosures so far offer vivid examples of both the good and the bad of national security oversight by individual acts of civil disobedience.