NSA To Scientists: We Won't Tell You What We've Told You, That's Classified

One of the downsides to the news cycle is that no matter how big or hot a story is, something else inevitably comes along. The advent of ISIS and Ebola, combined with the passing of time, have pushed national security concerns out of the limelight -- until, that is, someone at the NSA helps out by reminding us that yes, the agency still exists and yes, it still has some insane policies and restrictions.

Earlier this year, the Federation of American Scientists filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the NSA. The group was seeking information it thought would be relatively low-key -- what authorized information had been leaked to the media over the past 12 months?

The NSA's response reads as follows:
The document responsive to your request has been reviewed by this Agency as required by the FOIA and has been found to be currently and properly classified in accordance with Executive Order 13526,” the letter read. “The document is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.
To understand the significance of this, it may help to discuss the difference between an authorized and unauthorized leak. An unauthorized leak is the release of information that is not approved to be shared with the public or press, like Snowden's work. An authorized leak is classified information that is being legally and lawfully released. The announcement that the United States had killed bin Laden, for example, was an authorized leak.

Sometimes the government may choose to use an authorized leak to confirm or deny a story based on an unauthorized leak. Sometimes the act of leaking the information is part of its declassification. Either way, what the FAS was asking for was "What did you have permission to tell the public last year?" This is information the NSA is now required to provide to Congress as part of the amended Section 504 to the Intelligence Authorization Act.

Of course the very use of the phrase "Authorized leak" requires doublethink -- how can a leak (a word that's typically explicitly used to refer to an unauthorized and unofficial release of something) be both authorized and classified at the same time? As Steven Aftergood, the petitioner in the entire affair, writes: "The notion of an authorized disclosure of classified information is close to being a contradiction in terms. If something is classified, how can its disclosure be authorized (without declassification)? And if something is disclosed by an official who is authorized to do so, how can it still be classified? And yet, it seems that there is such a thing."

What it suggests to me, more than anything, is a government agency obsessed with keeping things secret with precious little thought given to what's being kept secret, or why, or what the overarching goal is. This is a problem that goes deeper than one's presidential preferences or a conventional Democratic / Republican split -- in fact, if the ideologies driving the adoption of such rules weren't bipartisan, things wouldn't be where they are today.

The NSA is insisting that it has the right to keep its lawful compliance and public disclosures secret not because the NSA is made of evil people but because the NSA has a knee-jerk preference and demand for secrecy. In a spy organization, that's understandable and admirable -- but it's precisely the opposite of what's needed to rebuild American's faith in the institution and it's judgment.