The hearings on the signals-intelligence program, run by the American National Security Agency, is getting widespread coverage in the media. Even though not much in the way of details, about the methods used to listen in on conversations potentially involving al-Qaeda will be published, these hearings will still compromise the effectiveness of the program.
Just the revelation of the existence of this program is enough to seriously degrade the effectiveness of the program. The best intelligence operations are those that are known only to the intelligence agency that perpetrated them. Knowledge of an attempted operation can even tip people off to change their habits - because it would tells those who were the intended victims that somebody is interested. The NSA controversy of 2006 is not the first such major incident. Earlier there was the unauthorized disclosure of U.S. Navy codebreaking efforts by the Chicago Tribune in 1942.
This is the first major intelligence controversy to be covered in the digital age, and that has ensured that the disclosure has caused massive damage. The Chicago Tribune story never got outside the United States, and no German or Japanese agents found out. Al-Qaeda has undoubtedly found out about the NSA's program. In the case of the NSA program, there already are reports that terrorists are changing their means of communicating, reportedly buying disposable cell phones and shifting to couriers. The latter method is one that the NSA has not figured out how to penetrate yet.
The other real hurdle that the hearings will create for the NSA is an air of controversy will hang around it the way controversy hung around the CIA after the Church Committee hearings. Congress and the media not only can blow stories, but their critical eye can make agencies very gun-shy. Scandals, even if there is no factual basis to them, attract public attention. Public attention is not something that intelligence services crave, especially when it is a scandal. Because that leads to politicians placing new restrictions on the intelligence agencies. The restrictions generally make life easier for terrorists and other scum who intend to cause serious harm to the country.
When the attacks succeed, of course, the intelligence agencies get flak from the same politicians who imposed the restrictions in the first place. This perhaps illustrates the biggest problem when public attention focuses on intelligence agencies. The cycle of public attention, leading to more restrictions and limited effectiveness will ensure that a successful attack occurs. - Harold C. Hutchison (email@example.com)