US officials have no problem leaking classified information about surveillance—as long as it fits their narrative


Executive Director

In the past few days there have been a flurry of stories about the Russian plane that crashed in the Sinai peninsula, which investigators reportedly think may have been caused by a bomb. Notably, anonymous US officials have been leaking to journalists that they believe ISIS is involved, and it’s a perfect illustration of the US government’s rank hypocrisy when it comes to the Edward Snowden disclosures.

Why do US officials allegedly have a “feeling” that ISIS was involved? According to multiple reports, US intelligence agencies have been intercepting ISIS communications discussing “something big” in the region last week.

CNN published a report on Tuesday based on anonymous sources that ISIS was likely responsible despite the fact that “no formal conclusion has been reached by the U.S. intelligence community and that U.S. officials haven't seen forensic evidence from the crash investigation”:

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The signs pointing to ISIS, another U.S. official said, are partially based on monitoring of internal messages of the terrorist group. Those messages are separate from public ISIS claims of responsibility, that official said.

Huh, weren’t we told by Snowden’s critics that it was terrible and traitorous when sources tell journalists that the US has surveillance capabilities that, in addition to collecting information on millions of innocent people, also target alleged terrorists?

Just today, the Daily Beast reported this:

The U.S. intelligence community intercepted a signal from an ISIS-affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula before a Russian jet crashed there on Saturday that warned of "something big in the area," two officials told The Daily Beast. An adviser familiar the U.S. intelligence said a call was made between members of Wilayat Sinai, which a U.S. official said Thursday was one of the "most potent" branches of ISIS. The conversation did not mention downing an airplane, but a defense official said comments could be tied to the crash. (emphasis mine)

Here, the leak is more specific: the little-known name of the subgroup targeted by surveillance (Wilayat Sinai), including their general location (Sinai) and the time of the interception (sometime before the crash). Now look at this tweet by NBC News, it dials down on the specificity even more: 

And just in case anyone wants to pretend that every other surveillance capability of US intelligence is classified but somehow this investigation is not, the New York Times clarified in their article on Wednesday:

“There’s not one thing that we know what is saying to us, ‘This is a bomb,’ ” said one of the American officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence considered preliminary and classified. “It’s just all indications of this or that, and not clear right now.” (emphasis mine)

So many people criticized Edward Snowden for allegedly leaking information showing that the US targeted suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen with their surveillance capabilities. Keep in mind, Snowden did not publish any of this information himself; it was the decision of major newspapers that found the information was newsworthy. It was also vague information that was months or years old, and in the vast majority of cases not the focal point of the stories—which was the information collected on millions of innocent people at the same time.

In this case, US officials have no problem at all leaking classified information about top secret surveillance capabilities which target terrorists, since it fits within their narrative. It’s also more specific information that’s more timely, involving an investigation that is still ongoing. Even the most virulent commentators who claim that Snowden was a traitor for leaking classified information had no problem publishing similarly leaked information about this potential terrorist attack.

We can almost be certain that there will be no leak investigation and no one will be punished—despite the fact that by the government’s own interpretation of the law, this is clearly illegal. (Not that we believe anyone should be prosecuted for leaking, but if the US is going to prosecute, they should do so uniformly and not cherry-pick who they want.)

This has happened over and over since the Snowden revelations started and we can only assume it’ll happen again. That’s because the US government’s policy on leaks has never really been about enforcing the law, or that leaks are so damaging to national security. It's about about controlling the story the media tells.

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