RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has been exposing the most profound secrets of America's surveillance system, and the Obama administration's response to that? Declassifying lots of other material. The NSA has been under orders to do that from the White House, yet many lawmakers are demanding even more, which raises the question: when do we know enough? NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: To the list of institutions still quaking over Edward Snowden's leaks, add the small community of people who fight government secrecy.
STEVE AFTERGOOD: We're living through a kind of slow-motion earthquake in government secrecy policy. And the full ramifications of it are not yet clear.
JOHNSON: Steve Aftergood writes a popular anti-secrecy blog and a few years ago he sued the government to make public the intelligence budget. But nothing compares, Aftergood says, to what's happening now, since Snowden started sharing documents with reporters.
AFTERGOOD: Already we've seen a more extensive disclosure of classified information about current intelligence programs than we've seen for at least 40 years, and maybe ever.
JOHNSON: And it's not just material that Snowden leaked. It's also information the Obama administration is disclosing on its own under pressure from Congress and judges. But the mindset of agents and analysts deep inside the surveillance structure argues against any disclosures for fear that terrorists and criminals will change their behavior once they learn how the U.S. is snooping. That old way of thinking has been overruled from the top. Consider this from President Obama, who talked about the intelligence community, or IC, in August.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I'm going to be pushing the IC to do is rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg come out there and a tail come out there, let's just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at.
JOHNSON: And the government has declassified more than ever before, especially about a bulk phone collection that gathered billions of records of Americans. One revelation led to another, just like pulling a thread on a sweater and unraveling an entire sleeve. So after officials decided to release opinions from the Secret Surveillance Court, those opinions included footnotes about NSA missteps. And later on, court documents about those missteps ultimately became public too. Teams of administration lawyers continue to go over the still-secret documents. Current and former government officials, like Carrie Cordero, a Justice Department lawyer who now runs the national security program at Georgetown, say they worry about a slippery slope.
CARRIE CORDERO: If there's to be anything left of our foreign intelligence capabilities, the intelligence community is going to have to draw some line to continue to keep some programs and some capabilities in the classified realm.
JOHNSON: The obvious problem: where to draw that line and who gets to draw it. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has alienated members of Congress with his testimony. And the head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, has few fans in the civil liberties community. Secrecy expert Steve Aftergood says officials made too many statements that proved not to be true.
AFTERGOOD: That has created a profound crisis in credibility for the intelligence community and for the classification system as a whole. It makes people wonder, well, if that wasn't true, what else isn't true?
JOHNSON: Cordero, the former Justice Department lawyer, says the Obama administration needs to find a better messenger.
CORDERO: It would be helpful if the administration more clearly defended the activities. They need to figure out who the right person is to do that job. And part of it falls to at the end of an administration who sort of has the credibility to take on that role.
JOHNSON: Ultimately, Cordero says, Congress may need to weigh in to require the federal government to disclose information on a regular schedule to help restore public confidence. Other veterans in the intelligence community say only an independent arbiter, like Congress or the courts, can balance the need to protect legitimate secrets against the public's right to know. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.