How media leaks affect war on terror
Terrorists already know US monitors their transactions. But revelations complicate US intelligence-gathering.
WASHINGTON AND BOSTON
The news media's recent disclosures of classified intelligence do "great harm" to US security, the Bush administration maintains.Skip to next paragraph
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The assertion is difficult to dispute, since nobody outside America's spy agencies knows for sure whether the leaks have caused terrorists to cover their tracks. But analysts and former intelligence officials suggest that the real harm of untimely disclosures lies elsewhere.
"The damage from this, if there is damage, is in the question of whether foreign governments and sources can trust the US to protect sensitive information," says Larry Johnson, a security consultant who worked for the CIA and the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism.
While any information terrorists get about how the US is seeking them is to their advantage, any such gains from the leaks of the past six months may only be slight, Mr. Johnson and other experts say.
"Are terrorists so dumb to think that we wouldn't be doing things like this?" asks Robert Jervis, an intelligence expert at Columbia University in New York.
The issue came to a head this week when the president and administration officials lambasted The New York Times for revealing that the Treasury Department was monitoring an international database of financial wire transfers.
It was the latest in a string of media disclosures about the government's antiterror intelligence operations. In December, The New York Times revealed a National Security Agency (NSA) program that monitored international phone calls and e-mails to and from people in America suspected of being linked to terrorism. In May, USA Today reported that the NSA was also compiling a database of domestic calls.
The administration has argued that each was an effective tool in rooting out terrorist networks. Some former intelligence analysts, however, cast doubts on their importance.
"Nothing that's been revealed in the last few months has had any substantive effect on the war on terror," says Vincent Cannistraro, chief of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterterrorism operations and analysis from 1988 to 1991. "Hardened, organized groups have been aware or assumed that voice, e-mail communications, and bank transfers are monitored at least since 9/11."
The administration itself has publicly touted its efforts to track terror financing, points out Ira Winkler, an NSA analyst until the mid-1990s and now an Internet security consultant.
"It's more of a public-relations nightmare than a detriment to our operations," he says regarding revelations that financial wire transfers were being monitored by the Treasury Department.
Of course, even the most sophisticated foes can sometimes make elementary slip-ups, these analysts say. Former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev talked about ballistic missiles on his limousine phone – which the US had tapped. Hambali, Al Qaeda's leader in Southeast Asia, was tracked in part by a money transfer and eventually captured.
But the paucity of high-profile successes suggests to some that these programs were having marginal impact.
"If these systems and programs were all that effective, we would have heard a lot more about arrests," says Johnson. "The absence of those tells me that despite all this hooting and hollering, they've not been that effective."
Moreover, the leaks might not have much influence at all on the success of various programs, like the NSA's efforts to track phone calls and then connect the dots to would-be terrorists – called data mining.
"General knowledge about this social-network analysis is not something that needs to be kept secret in order to be effective," says Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell University professor whose government- sponsored work involves writing algorithms to hunt for patterns of behavior that might match terrorist activity. "Our algorithms take into account the fact that these people are already conscious of being observed and are taking active measures to avoid being spotted."
Still, for most in the intelligence community, the leaks rankle. While several analysts commend the story about NSA eavesdropping, which brought up serious legal issues, they dismiss the other stories as the needless exposure of potentially useful projects.
Of the story on wire transfers, Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, went so far as to call for investigation and prosecution of The New York Times. "There was not a whole lot of public value in publishing it," adds Paul Pillar, who was the CIA's National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.
Thursday, the House was expected to weigh a resolution condemning publication of the terror financing surveillance and saying it expects "cooperation" from news organizations in the future in "not disclosing classified intelligence programs."
The coverage betrays an overeagerness to publish classified material regardless of its value to intelligence operations, Mr. Pillar and others say. And leaks do hurt US intelligence, they add. "There were times in my tenure that one could track leaks right to serious losses" in sources, says retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who was director of the NSA from 1985 to 1988.
But another former senior intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous because of continuing ties to government is critical of authorized leaks from the administration as well as unauthorized leaks. "We shouldn't be touting our successes in public," the official says. "You're only sensitizing the opposition to how you're being successful against them. I think mistakes have been made on both sides" inside government and through the news media.
The official disagrees with some others' assessment that disclosure of the wire transfer surveillance was a nonevent, saying "the damage from the leak about monitoring was significant."