Why are NSA surveillance programs classified in the first place?

"Why did the Washington Post think it should publish this story?" Bob Schieffer asked Barton Gellman, one of the Post's journalists who broke the story about National Security Agency data-collection programs. The question opened the CSIS Schieffer Series on Tuesday, focusing on the NSA surveillance programs and Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who revealed them.

"I'll speak for myself, and I think that it represents the Washington Post's view on this: Why wouldn't we?" Gellman said. He added that the American public should be able to have a debate on the limit between privacy and intelligence gathering.

The conversation continued with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times, and James Lewis, senior fellow as CSIS. They spoke to the 200-person audience, offering perspectives on Snowden's actual capabilities, the content of material that Snowden was able to collect and the necessity of public conversations about the NSA surveillance programs.

"Someone I know described him as the 'Help Desk,'" explained Lewis, when Schieffer asked about Snowden's actual role as a contractor for the NSA. Gellman disagreed; he said that these suggestions trivialize Snowden's role, and that his role was much more substantial.

But according to Lewis, Snowden overstated his capabilities to access highly confidential information.

"Did he have access to some good data? Yes. Did this stuff come as a surprise to the Chinese or Russians. No," Lewis said.

Gellman fought against that claim: "He [Snowden] has given me good reason to believe that he is in possession of material that could do extraordinary damage," he said.

The revelation of these NSA surveillance programs is important, Gellman went on, because it has spurred the debate over the balance of privacy and surveillance. Sanger agreed, describing how media has been used in the past to encourage public debates.

Sanger compared the process of releasing Snowden's documents to his experience in publishing the book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." For his book, Sanger gathered intelligence leading him to reveal that the United States was a primary player in creating a computer worm that targeted Iran's centrifuges, which allow the country to enrich uranium to create nuclear weapons. This book spurred a larger debate about the U.S. government using cyber as a tactic of espionage and warfare.

In regard to secret government programs, Sanger raised the point: "Are these things classified to keep adversaries from knowing from it or to keep Americans from knowing about it?" he said.

Gellman explained that there are reasons that Americans do not know about these programs saying, "the more you know about this the more it creeps you out."

But "there aren't that many analysts - nobody is reading your stuff," Lewis fired back. Lewis argued that there is little reason or manpower that would lead the NSA to actually dig unnecessarily for someone's personal details. He also pointed out that foreign governments would be more likely to try to read the email correspondence of reporters than the U.S. government would.

"It is not a perfect world," Lewis said. "It is not a 19th century agrarian republic where men and dinosaurs coexisted. What it is is a place where we have these tradeoffs. It creeps you out to have people looking at your metadata; it creeps me out to find unattended luggage in O'Hare Airport. Right? You pick, did you like Boston?"

Schieffer ended the conversation by asking Lewis why he thinks the United States is not in a cyber war with China. "The Chinese take advantage of weaknesses, we take advantage of weaknesses," Lewis said, adding that the use of "cyber" does not mean an attack. On the other hand, Sanger warned, the United States may not be in a "cyber cold war" now, but it could be headed in that direction.

After taking questions from the audience, Schieffer explained that his heroes are people like Martin Luther King Junior and Rosa Parks.

"They kind of stayed around," Schieffer said, arguing that Snowden could have helped his cause by staying in the United States to defend his case. Gellman, though, noted that no matter how Snowden is defined, "villain or a hero," he has "enabled a public debate" about the government's power.

  • Kylie Atwood

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