Three days after the New York Times revealed that the U.S. government was secretly monitoring the calls and emails of people inside the United States without court-approved warrants, the National Security Agency issued a top-secret assessment of the damage done to intelligence efforts by the story. The conclusion: the information could lead terrorists to try to evade detection. Yet the agency gave no specific examples of investigations that had been jeopardized.
The December 2005 bombshell story, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, set off a debate about the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of spying powers after the 9/11 attacks, and also about the Times editors’ decision to delay its publication for a year. White House officials had warned the Times that revealing the program would have grave consequences for national security.
The NSA’s damage assessment on the article — referred to as a “cryptologic insecurity” — is among the files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The memo recounts meetings in 2004 and 2005 in which administration officials disclosed “certain details of the special program to select individuals from the New York Times to dissuade them from publishing a story on the program at that time.”
The memo gives a general explanation of what terrorists might do in reaction to the information revealed. It was “likely” that terrorists would stop using phones in favor of mail or courier, and use encryption and code words. They could also plant false information, knowing the U.S. government was listening. But the leaked program had not “been noted in adversary communications,” according to the memo. It gave no specific examples of investigations or targets that had or might be impacted by the revelations.
“To this day we’ve never seen any evidence — despite all the claims they made to keep us from publishing — that it did any tangible damage to national security. This is further confirmation of that,” Lichtblau told The Intercept.