2014 March 5

The Same Old Song: NSA Head Claims Snowden Leaks Harm National Security


In the wake of revelations about massive National Security Agency spying on Americans in documents stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden, the head of the NSA on this day claimed that the leaks were harming national security. This was a familiar refrain from intelligence agency officials and presidential administrations, who regularly claim that major leaks harm national security (except, of course, when they leak information for their own purposes). In most cases, and especially with the Snowden-related stories, the information has mainly embarrassed the administration. A year after the initial Snowden-related leaks, there were still no reports of any specific damage to national security resulting from them.

Three months later, on June 27, 2014, however, the new head of the NSA admitted that “the sky is not falling” because of the Snowden-related leaks.

In 1971, the administration of President Richard Nixon obtained an injunction blocking publication of further stories based on the leaked Pentagon Papers, arguing that they harmed national security. (See The New York Times’ first stories based on the Papers on June 13, 1971.) The Supreme Court ruled the injunction a violation of the First Amendment in the landmark case, New York Times v. United States, on June 30, 1971. Subsequent analysis of the complete Pentagon Papers later found that they contained no material that could have damaged national security.

On April 14, 2014, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded to the Guardian US and the Washington Post for their stories on National Security Agency (NSA) spying based on documents leaked to them by Edward Snowden. On February 16, 2014, reporters also won the prestigious George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism for their stories based on the Snowden-released documents.

Learn about Snowden and the NSA files: Luke Harding, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (2014)

Watch the acclaimed film about Snowden: Citizenfour (2014)

Read about the Pentagon Papers (and the absence of “secrets”): John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, Inside the Pentagon Papers (2004)

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