I am reading Richard Franks’ magisterial history of the Guadalcanal Campaign. One recurring theme is the vital role played by cryptology. Our military effectiveness was substantially greater when we could read the Japanese JN25 naval codes than when we couldn’t. When the Japanese changed codes, we were reduced to relying on traffic analysis, a sort of prot0-data mining, analogous to and as about effective as our relying on terrorist chatter to attempt to discern enemy plans.
Even casual WWII students know that Joseph Rochefort’s cryptology unit made victory at Midway possible. Although it is somewhat conventional to believe that American victory was inevitable after Midway, the story of the Guadalcanal Campaign gives the lie to that belief. It was a close run thing, and the prospect of defeat-including surrender of the Marines on the ‘Canal-hung heavy on every mind in October and November of 1942. Our intermittent ability to read Japanese codes was quite plausibly the (very narrow) margin of victory.
And of course the victory over the U-boats in the Atlantic, and the war against Germany generally, depended in a crucial way on breaking the Enigma cipher.
Note the name given to the Allied code breaking efforts: Ultra. Note further the lengths to which the Allies went to protecting the fact that they had broken Enigma: as Churchill said, these efforts were surrounded with a bodyguard of lies. Distribution of Ultra intelligence was extremely limited. There were numerous occasions when Eisenhower and other high commanders decided not to respond to German moves that they had divined from Ultra to protect that secret. People were died-were sacrificed-to protect that secret, because its revelation would have cost the lives of many more.
Moral of the story: cryptology is a vital military activity. Corollary to the moral: maintaining secrecy about cryptological capacity is a matter of the highest military and national security importance.
Fast forward 70-71 years from Guadalcanal to the present. Yesterday the New York Times (along with the Guardian and ProPublica) made massive disclosures about NSA efforts to decrypt internet traffic. This is indisputably an egregious blow to US national security, if one accepts that there is a legitimate purpose for the NSA at all.
Yet the even more egregious Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden assert that they have released nothing that would jeopardize US national security.
Firstly, that is an obvious lie.
Second, who the hell (and I cleaned that up) delegated to such flagrant and admitted foes of the United States government the authority to judge what is, and what is not, in the vital national security interest? For them to arrogate to themselves such an awesome responsibility is profoundly undemocratic, and unrepublican. They are unelected, unappointed, and unaccountable.
And who the hell at the New York Times thinks this is acceptable? (Aside: why is the NYT undertaking actions that are deeply damaging to the Obama administration? Interesting question to ponder: I don’t know the answer. Relatedly: how are Obama and others in the administration responding to this ideological betrayal?)
There is a capabilities vs. intent issue here. Yes, the decryption capabilities are awesome, and can be used for nefarious purposes that violate the rights of individuals in the US. (Spare me about spying on foreign governments.) But these capabilities are also vital to prosecuting wars on terrorists, and state actors that are enemies or potential enemies of the United States. Pace Guadalcanal: to deny the US military and intelligence services the ability to decrypt is to condemn us to fighting blind. Information-intelligence-is power, and time and again has proved the difference between victory and defeat. That we need this capability is manifestly obvious, and it is equally obvious that this capability is profoundly less effective, the more that is known about it.
The issue is how to limit the use of these capabilities to legitimate national security purposes. Although Greenwald, Poitras, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and now the New York Times have insinuated that these capabilities are routinely abused, they have produced no credible evidence to support these insinuations. They elide from “can” to “do”, and do so in purple prose. Every one of their stories elicits pushback that discredits these broad claims about abuse, but by then the narrative is cemented and the damage is done, and to be Glenn Greenwald et al means never having to say you’re sorry. Because they aren’t. This is lawfare, directed against the US, and to them, all is fair. Greenwald et al are walking, talking, and unfortunately writing and leaking illustrations of the adage that truth is the first casualty in war.
Vital defense capabilities-especially cryptological ones-need to be protected, and sometimes protected with a bodyguard of lies. These lies save lives-and liberties. This is one of the hard truths that statesmen in the real world must accept and grapple with. The Guardian of Lies, with its new collaborators, flaunting their moral superiority when revealing vital secrets, are jeopardizing lives and liberties, and are doing so when there is no effective means of holding them to account for the damage they are doing. Indeed, they wrap themselves in the banner of journalism to claim that they cannot be and should not be held accountable. This mismatch between consequences and accountability for them is a recipe for disaster.