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US Officials Leak Information About the ISIS Raid That’s More Sensitive Than Anything Snowden Ever Leaked

Trevor Timm

 by

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

Here’s how the New York Times described how the US conducted this “successful” raid:

The raid came after weeks of surveillance of Abu Sayyaf, using information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said. The White House rejected initial reports from the region that attributed the raid to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Read that carefully and pretend it was Snowden who leaked this information, instead of nameless Pentagon spokesmen. US officials would be screaming from the rooftops that he leaked extremely timely and sensitive intelligence (it was literally only hours old), that he will cause specific terrorists to change their communications behavior, and most importantly, he put the lives of informants at risk. (Note: none of Snowden’s leaks did any of these things.)

Yet despite the fact that the ISIS raid was discussed on all of the Sunday shows this week, no one brought up anything about this leak. Contrast that with Snowden’s revelations, where government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality. Take former CIA deputy director and torture advocate Mike Morrell, for example, who is currently on a book promotion tour and has been preposterously suggesting that Snowden’s leaks somehow led to the rise of ISIS.

For the sake of hypothetical argument, let’s take Morrell’s claims at face value. Let’s put aside the fact that, despite their “sky is falling” rhetoric, the US government has consistently refused to release specific information showing that terrorists have “changed their behavior” due to the Snowden leaks, and that terrorists were sophisticated users of encryption for more than a decade before anyone heard Snowden’s name. Let’s also ignore that the US government has been caught blatantly exaggerating how leaks have “damaged” national security in the past, and that officials have already admitted their nightmare scenarios in this case have not actually come to pass.

Here is what Morrell told NPR when asked about Edward Snowden and the damage he thinks he caused to national security:

So I can't get into specifics, but I'll tell you that there was a program that he disclosed that was vital to the United States' ability to see what terrorists are doing. And they all changed their communication habits because of that disclosure - al-Qaida in Pakistan, al-Qaida in Yemen and al-Qaida in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS. So there is no doubt in my mind that that change in behavior on the part of al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS contributed to ISIS's rise.

And here’s what he said on 60 Minutes the same week:

"What Edward Snowden did has put Americans at greater risk because terrorists learn from leaks and they will be more careful, and we will not get the intelligence we would have gotten otherwise."

Every single thing Morrell said applies to what US officials leaked this weekend, if not more so. But since the leak about the ISIS raid was meant to glorify the Obama administration, instead of embarrassing it or exposing wrongdoing, everyone in the US government will pretend like it never happened.

Either leaks exposing the “sources and methods” of surveillance are damaging to national security or they are not. Administration officials can’t have it both ways.


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Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico.

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