Steve Chapman

If a person in government says the sun will come up tomorrow, it's sensible to believe that person -- but not until the first rays seep over the horizon. Skepticism is even more justified when the government has been caught hiding something from the public and needs to excuse the secrecy.

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaks about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, its defenders have made two basic assertions. The first is that these programs were vital in stopping terrorists. The second is that by revealing their mere existence, Snowden did grave damage to national security.

On the first claim, NSA Director Keith Alexander and others have gone into great detail, crediting the programs for foiling some 50 plots. But on the second one, they have been curiously reticent.

Now, it's hard to believe it would come as a great surprise to al-Qaida that American spies might be examining their phone records. Nor is it likely that hardened militants were slapping their foreheads to learn that someone in Washington may have been reading their email or listening in on their Skype chats.

But those in power insist that unveiling the information put lives at risk. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, decried these "dangerous national security leaks," insisting that the "effectiveness of these programs depends on them being kept secret from the foreign terrorists they target."

Alexander echoed that claim in testifying before the committee last week. Asked whether the revelation was harmful to security, he replied, "I think it was irreversible and significant damage to this nation. ... I believe it will hurt us and our allies."

But how? My curiosity whetted, I contacted Rogers' office for information on what the terrorists gained. A spokesman emailed to say the chairman could not be bothered to offer support for his allegation: "He does not have space available in his schedule this week to re-address issues that have very clearly been addressed in the open hearing." No transcript of the hearing was available, but I was assured I would get the answers if I watched the video.

Filled with hope, I watched all three hours -- but was disappointed. Only three times did the subject come up at all, and then briefly. No one offered anything to substantiate the claim.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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