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Snowden talks privacy and government secrecy; NSA claims public report is classified

As Edward Snowden talked about privacy and government secrecy, the NSA claimed 'authorized' public statements are classified.

Snowden virtual interview
Credit: Screengrab New Yorker Festival Snowden interview

During a virtual interview at the 2014 New Yorker Festival, Edward Snowden spoke about privacy and government secrecy. When he addressed the cop out “nothing to hide” argument, Snowden said:

Snowden advised people who care about their privacy to stay away from online services that are “hostile to privacy” such as Google, Dropbox and Facebook. All three of those services have made significant security improvements since the summer of Snowden revelations, yet Snowden claimed they are still “dangerous services” and should be avoided.

Secrecy is not the same thing as privacy, but most folks have secrets that they would like to keep private. That however doesn’t imply they are criminals, pedophiles, or terrorists. When talking about the government’s use of secrecy, Snowden said:

We can have secret programs. You know, the American people don’t have to know the name of every individual that’s under investigation. We don’t need to know the technical details of absolutely every program in the intelligence community. But we do have to know the bare and broad outlines of the powers our government is claiming … and how they affect us and how they affect our relationships overseas. Because if we don’t, we are no longer citizens, we no longer have leaders. We’re subjects, and we have rulers.

Regarding the NSA and secrecy, once the agency has issued "public" statements, then that “authorized” disclosure is no longer a secret. Although that’s common sense, the NSA claims that is not true. Steven Aftergood, who writes Secrecy News for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), had previously sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any “authorized public disclosures of intelligence information” sent to Congress in the last year.

According to Aftergood, the NSA responded that “a report to Congress on authorized disclosures of classified intelligence to the media — not unauthorized disclosures — is classified and is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.” In fact, the NSA’s mind-boggling response (pdf) included that “the document is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

He added:

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.

FAS appealed the denial (pdf), pointing out, “It is well established that information, including classified information, that has been publicly disclosed on an authorized basis loses its exemption from disclosure under FOIA…. Since the requested document addresses ‘authorized public disclosures,’ the substance of those authorized disclosures may no longer be withheld.”

Even before the Snowden revelations, three years ago the ACLU warned Congress that government secrecy was like a cancer killing American democracy. When the government claims authorized public disclosures are “classified,” then apparently “secrecy poisoning” that protects surveillance and “undermines constitutional checks and balances” is still “an active threat to individual liberty and undermines the very notion of government of, by and for the people.”

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