It’s an assertion that defies common sense but speaks volumes about how the U.S. intelligence complex dodges accountability: The National Security Agency is arguing that even the secrets it has intentionally disclosed to reporters are still so secret that disclosing their disclosure threatens national security.

At issue is a report to Congress from the NSA on instances of “authorized disclosures” of classified intelligence to the media. The report was mandated by the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.

Steven Aftergood, who writes the essential Secrecy News blog for the Federation of American Scientists, requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Has it ever been more clear that the NSA phrase ‘could reasonably be expected to damage national security’ is a euphemism for ‘could gravely embarrass us?’

The NSA’s response, dated Oct. 2: “The document is classified because its disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.”

Has it ever been more clear that the NSA uses the phrase “could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” as a euphemism for “could gravely embarrass us?”

As Aftergood notes in his appeal, the legal precedent is that once information has been “officially acknowledged” it isn’t exempt from FOIA anymore – it’s not secret.

So what is the NSA so desperately eager to cover up?

Aftergood charitably tried to explain in his own post on the matter this morning:

Confronted by a pressing question from a reporter on a classified matter, an official might opt to acknowledge or disclose classified information in response, without necessarily intending to broadcast that information to everyone. In such cases, the information might be disclosed without being declassified, especially if it is already known to the reporter through other channels.

But more likely, what the NSA is so sensitive about is how frequently its officials disclose secrets when doing so serves the agency’s political agenda – and especially when it discredits the agency’s critics.

(That, and inappropriately friendly strategizing with tame reporters.)

One of the biggest open secrets in Washington is that, despite officialdom’s intensive efforts to demonize whistleblowers like former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, the vast majority of disclosures of secret information are not “leaks” but “pleaks” — a term Columbia Law Professor David E. Pozen coined to describe something that is more like an official “plant” than a “leak.”

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were particularly adept at selectively disclosing secret intelligence findings that served their agenda – even while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would damage them.

I found Pozen’s study on pleaks thanks to Aftergood, naturally.

Pozen’s starting point in that study is the “dramatic disconnect between the way our laws and our leaders condemn leaking in the abstract and the way they condone it in practice.”

So the NSA wants to “pleak” when that serves its interests. But it doesn’t want anyone to know about it, because then it would make it even more unseemly to be persecuting someone for a “leak” that doesn’t.

Photo: NSA.gov