Treat NSA leaks with care, national security is on the line

Edward Snowden was thinking of leaking secret documents for many years. David Cheskin/PA

The past week has seen some extraordinary allegations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting all online communications. It is also alleged that the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) may have circumvented UK law. These allegation are profound not least because they also claim that governments of the US, and by extension the UK, have direct access to the servers of companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and many others.

All the companies accused of granting such access made equally strong claims that they definitely have not given such direct access. The US Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying that if any document released were genuine then the inference that there was mass surveillance underway would be incorrect.

So the bottom line is that someone is lying, or at best has completely misunderstood the data they have seen. We will have to wait to see how the story plays out.

In the meantime the media coverage raises a serious issue that seems to have submerged under the frenzy. The facts known so far are scant and unverified. With national security in play, where do you draw the line in publishing classified documents? When does whistleblowing become damaging to public safety?

There has to be a place for whistleblowers, and investigative journalism, to uncover matters such as illegality and abuses of power. In the UK there are laws that protect such whistleblowers.

It is well documented that the UK shares signals intelligence with the US. Since 1946 the UK has agreements for intelligence sharing and these have stood the UK in good stead. So it is not surprising that the UK may have access to interceptions conducted by the US. The real concern is that such arrangements could be used to circumvent UK law, but I will be astonished if we find that the UK intelligence services, or those of the US, have been acting illegally.

With oversight from the Intelligence and Security Select Committee and the Interception Commissioner, it would place the intelligence community in a precarious position to be found to not only have broken they law but to have lied about it. Remember, those with oversight have the mandate and clearance to roam where they will.

Let’s assume for a moment that the material published is genuine, but what it revealed is not illegal. Let’s assume that any intelligence operations revealed are real, but that those operations are entirely within the law. Is it responsible to publish classified documents just because you can?

Intelligence gathering goes on in the background, because if those who you seek to investigate know the methods and techniques you employ, then they can take steps to avoid your scrutiny. To begin to publish documents that reveal operational methods is like playing a game of football and telling the other side your tactics before you begin.

I cast my mind back to the Watergate scandal. When Washington Post’s reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein constructed their story, they were careful to corroborate their facts. Their “deep throat” pointed them in the right direction, but they made no allegations until they had interviewed several sources and had constructed a consistent, self-supporting story. We have yet to see such corroboration in the current story.

This morning on the BBC World Service Ewen MacAskill, one of the Guardian reporters who broke the current story, said that Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, had been collecting these documents for many years.

It cannot have been that Snowden was shocked that the intelligence community was collecting intelligence. That is what they do. Yes, if it turns out that they have mass unfettered access to the systems of the various companies implicated then we should be concerned, but if they are targeting suspected terrorists (or other criminals) then it should not be surprising.

I’m left with a niggling feeling that somewhere along the line there is a real danger that certain aspects of intelligence gathering will be revealed that could aid those who would do us harm. There is a fine line between exposing wrong-doing in those in positions of power, and diminishing their ability to protect us. I hope those covering the story are not stepping over that line.