I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you

Now that the House has at least temporarily refused to pass the extension of the administration's warrantless wiretapping power, there's a lot of talk about how it's destroying the security of America. For instance, here's President Bush:
"Our intelligence professionals are working day and night to keep us safe," Mr. Bush said, "and they're waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed or tie their hands by failing to act."

Obviously this could be true, but we have no way to tell whether it is or not because from the beginning the Bush Administration has kept pretty much all the details about the program, including whether it's done anything useful, secret, even from Congress:

(CBS/AP) With legislation that would legalize President Bush's eavesdropping program entangled in a battle over the side issue of corporate immunity, the White House sought to move the process forward by acceding to requests from the Senate Judiciary Committee to view classified documents its members have long demanded.

However, the White House continued to draw a line between Senators and House members.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had demanded that other members of the panel have the same access to the same documents before he considers giving immunity to telecommunications companies that may have tapped Americans' telephones and computers without court approval. The measure is an amendment in the Senate's version of the bill rewriting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA).

White House Counsel Fred Fielding had offered to let Chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking Republican Arlen Specter see documents that might persuade them to include liability protection for telephone companies, but initially only to them.

Later Thursday, the White House agreed to expand the documents' distribution.

I'm not saying that this program isn't essential. The problem is that we have no way of knowing because the administration has deliberately denied the public the information it would need to assess what the program is and how and whether it works. We're told that that information is classified and that it's strongly implied that if we did have the information we would agree that it was important.

Again that could be true, but I remember back in the 90s when the debates over cryptography export controls were going on and we were told almost exactly the same thing, namely that wiretapping was really important and that if we just could see the classified information we would be in favor of keeping them. There was widespread skepticism about these claims on the not entirely implausible theory that the NSA might not be entirely objective about the tradeoffs between their desire to listen in on everyone's communications and people's desire to keep them private, and that just maybe it was a lot easier for them to make their case if, you know, the public didn't know anything. Anyway, when the NRC committee studying crypto policy investigated them they concluded that"

This unclassified report does not have a classified annex, nor is there a classified version of it. After receiving a number of classified briefings on material relevant to the subject of this study, the fully cleared members of the committee (13 out of the total of 16) agree that these details, while necessarily important to policy makers who need to decide tomorrow what to do in a specific case, are not particularly relevant to the larger issues of why policy has the shape and texture that it does today nor to the general outline of how technology will and policy should evolve in the future.

The basic problem here, as with the cryptography issue, is that there's a conflict of interest when the people who favor some particular policy also control the supply of information about the merits of that policy—they have a natural incentive to characterize the evidence in the way most favorable to their position. This is of course natural, but it should make you pretty suspicious when you're told that you can't have the information you would need to make an informed decision.