Why secrecy matters

It turns out that when officials know their statements can’t be checked, they’re not always truthful:

details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false.

For now, the crumbling secrecy surrounding the programs has underscored the extent to which obscuring their dimensions had served government interests beyond the importance of the intelligence they produced.

Secret court rulings that allowed the NSA to gather phone records enabled the spy service to assemble a massive database on Americans’ phone records without public debate or the risk of political blowback.

The binding secrecy built into the PRISM program of tracking international e-mail allowed the NSA to compel powerful technology companies to comply with requests for information about their users while keeping them essentially powerless to protest.

The careful depiction of NSA programs also served diplomatic ends. Until recently, the United States had positioned itself as such an innocent victim of cyber intrusions by Russia and China that the State Department issued a secret demarche, or official diplomatic communication, in January scolding Beijing. That posture became more problematic after leaks by the former NSA contractor and acknowledged source of the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and is thought to be stuck at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow.

The latest news shows how this type of thing expands:

The latest allegations surfaced in the online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, which reported that US agencies had monitored the offices of the EU in New York and Washington. Der Spiegel said information about the spying appeared in documents obtained by Edward J. Snowden, the former American intelligence contractor, and seen in part by the magazine.

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement that he was “deeply worried and shocked.”

“If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-US relations,” he said, adding that he wanted a “full clarification” and would demand “further information speedily from the US authorities.”

Viviane Reding, the EU’s commissioner for justice, responding to a question at a meeting in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, said that “partners do not spy on each other.”

If this is secret, why wouldn’t you do it? There is always pressure to get information from somewhere and with secrecy there won’t be much pressure on the other side. So you end up spying on citizens and friendly countries. You end up stranding citizens overseas:

Motiwala, a U.S. citizen, wanted to return to his family in Southern California. But earlier this month, as he traveled from Jakarta, Indonesia, to LAX, airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

Although travelers can petition to be removed from the no-fly list, civil liberties advocates say the Department of Homeland Security‘s redress process is so opaque that the only way to know if you’ve been cleared is to attempt to fly again.

Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

He took leave from medical school last year, traveled to Pakistan to visit relatives and went on to Indonesia to work with the group, members of which go around the world proselytizing for Islam.

Tablighi Jamaat is widely regarded as peaceful and apolitical, and claims millions of followers, but U.S. and European law enforcement officials have raised questions about possible connections to radical Islam.

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