At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald has an article where he addresses the NSA's release of classified information about its own programs. Greenwald notes this article in the LA Times, which begins:
In nearly nine years as head of the nation's largest intelligence agency, Gen. Keith Alexander presided over a vast expansion of digital spying, acquiring information in a volume his predecessors would have found unimaginable.
In Iraq, for example, the National Security Agency went from intercepting only about half of enemy signals and taking hours to process them to being able to collect, sort and make available every Iraqi email, text message and phone-location signal in real time, said John "Chris" Inglis, who recently retired as the NSA's top civilian.
The overhaul, which Alexander ordered shortly after taking leadership of the agency in August 2005, enabled U.S. ground commanders to find out when an insurgent leader had turned on his cellphone, where he was and whom he was calling.
Greenwald quotes this portion of the article, and highlights the second paragraph, noting that this seems to be the first anybody has heard of this program. Greenwald is, to put it lightly, critical:
[I]n this case, the NSA’s “most carefully guarded secrets” were spilled thanks to Chris Inglis and the paper’s own Ken Dilanian. But because the purpose was to serve the NSA’s interests and to propagandize the public, none of the people who pretend to object to leaks–when they shine light on the bad acts of the most powerful officials–will utter a peep of protest. That’s because, as always, secrecy designations and condemnations of leaks are about shielding those officials from scrutiny and embarrassment, not any legitimate considerations of national security or any of the other ostensible purposes.
In the case of the Iraq program discussed in the LA Times, I think that Greenwald's criticism may be a little misplaced. The program that Inglis mentioned in that article seems to have been related to US war efforts in the country -- efforts that have since ceased. So the government's disclosure of that program would not seem to undermine information-collecting activities or endanger any lives.
But Greenwald's critique here points out an additional obstacle to any attempt by the government to control the narrative regarding mass surveillance programs. Not only is the government in the dark over what information Snowden has and when the media will release this information, any attempt by the government to release the information under its own framework will appear to conflict with the government's claims that the secrecy of these programs is necessary to protect lives and maintain the effectiveness of the NSA's information-collecting tools.
The government may respond that in certain cases, the benefits of releasing information about a classified program may outweigh the costs of that program becoming public knowledge. In some situations, the government may think that the information will be inevitably released by media outlets based on leaked information. In these scenarios, the government's own release of the information would only reveal information that would likely be revealed by the media in the near future. Additionally, in some situations (like, possibly, the Iraq phone surveillance program), the government may no longer have any use for the program, and disclosing it would not remove any meaningful surveillance options from the government's toolbox. Under these circumstances, the government's release of information may be an effective damage control strategy, since the government can present the program in a manner that highlights its effectiveness, its limits, or other features that may make the program seem more palatable to the public.
Whatever the case may be, Greenwald's article highlights the difficulty for the government when it comes to controlling the narrative over its classified programs. Not only is the government in the dark over when the media will release this information, if the government chooses to release the information itself, it risks undermining its claims that classification is necessary for the programs to remain effective and save lives. And critics may fire right back by labeling the government's release as "propaganda."