Glenn Greenwald, the civil-liberties columnist who broke the story about the National Security Agency's massive collection of metadata on U.S. phone and Internet usage patterns, contends that, despite its being classified Top Secret, “There’s not a single revelation that we’ve provided to the world that even remotely jeopardizes national security.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper begs to differ, saying they have done “huge, grave damage.”
The truth is that Greenwald does not have any way of knowing how much damage has been done. And Clapper, who denied the program even existed in testimony under oath to Congress, obviously believes he has higher duties than public candor. Indeed, while he vividly condemns "reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures used to keep Americans safe," he also admits that "not all the inaccuracies can be corrected without further revealing classified information."
While they're almost existentially opposed to one another, Greenwald and Clapper are honorable men who passionately believe in their causes and love their country. Clapper has spent the last half century in his nation's service, almost all of it in the intelligence business. He's been in charge of the nation's secrets and the men and women who collect and analyze them and is keenly aware of the practical consequences of their compromise. Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer by training, is leery of the national-security state and its penchant for secrecy, deeply troubled that far too much information is classified for the wrong reasons and that Americans' civil liberties are traded too cheaply for minimal and even nonexistent gains in security. Neither is wrong.
Do I trust that Clapper is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the program and its harm? How can I? While his account of what's happening—and not happening—strikes me as plausible, it remains highly classified. Not only did he do everything in his power to keep it secret from us, but he quite probably lied to Congress to do so. Yet, while I don't like it one bit, lying about it may be his duty if that's necessary to throw Al Qaeda and others who intend us harm off the scent.
Over many years, Greenwald and I have debated these issues, sometimes enthusiastically agreeing, sometimes passionately opposed, but always respectful. Unlike far too many public intellectuals, Greenwald has been utterly consistent in his positions regardless of which party holds the Oval Office. His bitter critique of the excesses of the Bush administration’s policies has continued unabated under President Obama.
I share many of Greenwald's concerns about the war on terror in general and the NSA program in particular. Some of actions taken by the United States government in the name of protecting our safety, Greenwald and I agree, rather obviously violate the spirit of the Bill of Rights. And, as anyone who's had reason to handle classified information—and I have—can attest, it's way too easy to designate material secret and way too hard to make the information that shouldn't be secret available to the public.
Yet, there is still reason to roundly and unequivocally condemn the treachery of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old intelligence contractor who violated his oath to safeguard the classified information with which he was entrusted by leaking it to Greenwald. Just as there is to rebuke Bradley Manning, the then twenty-two-year-old Army private first class who passed troves of national-defense information to Wikileaks. Indeed, this issue is among the core disagreements I've had with Greenwald over the years. (Greenwald and I are in absolute agreement that much of the treatment to which Manning was subjected while awaiting trial was outrageous. But that's a sad footnote to this particular debate.)
Should we fully trust Obama, Clapper, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, CIA Director John Brennan and others in charge of deciding what secrets to keep from us? History tells us that we’d be fools to do so. Certainly, presidents, cabinet secretaries and intelligence officials have lied to us in the past.
At the same time, Obama has now twice been elected president. Clapper, Hagel, Brennan and others have been thoroughly vetted and approved by the Senate. They've spent years earning our trust and every action they take is under constant scrutiny.
Given a choice, I'd rather place my trust in those charged with safeguarding our nation's secrets to do so honorably than to make every disgruntled Army private or low-level contractor a de facto national classification authority.
The president and his national-security team are atop a very long chain of command—actually, several chains of command—with layer after layer of seasoned professionals able to apply their mature judgment in making calls as to what should and shouldn't be secret. Or, at the programmatic level, what should and shouldn't be done.
Yes, they're human beings—and human beings make mistakes and have agendas. But, while they're undeniably intelligent and presumably well-intentioned, Snowden and Manning are human beings prone to mistakes and with agendas of their own. Why on earth would we trust them more than our elected representatives and national-security professionals?
Not only has Clapper been making decisions related to classified information almost as long as Snowden and Manning combined have lived on this planet, but he's got a team of thousands to help him make those decisions. And he's got not only the president but the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees looking over his shoulder.
None of this is to say that the current system is perfect. In an ideal world, Congress would be more aggressive in pushing back against the excesses of the executive and the judicial branches, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be a less of a rubber stamp. There's too little resistance to intrusive programs if they're done in the name of public safety or fighting terrorists.
But the answer isn't to put those at the bottom of the chain of command in charge of deciding what remains secret. Those at the top should do the jobs with which they've been entrusted.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.