Max Frankel, the 83-year-old former New York Times executive editor, wrote this week in his old newspaper: “As those of us who had to defend the 1971 publication of the secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War have been arguing ever since, there can be no mature discussion of national security policies without the disclosure – authorized or not – of the government’s hoard of secrets.”
[Guardian editorial: “Edward Snowden: in defence of whistleblowers”]
That’s the dilemma.
Some things do need to be kept under wraps but the choice can’t safely be left to those seeped in the business of hoovering up data and secrets. True north for them will always point one way.
So who decides?
Ideally some arm of government, responsibly and as transparently as possible monitoring (and where necessary reining in) what the spooks are doing. Trouble is, from a politicians’ of view, unless there’s some public outcry the path of least resistance is to let the pros get on with it. Worse still, in the wake of 9/11 national security has become a bipartisan obsession. That doesn’t leave much political upside in pushing to cut surveillance when you’d end up as collateral damage in the event of any new terrorist outrage.
If government is a little too cosy with the intelligence sector, who’s left? There are really only two possibilities: journalists, using the term in its broadest sense; or whistleblowers.
Sticking your neck out nowadays isn’t much easier for journalists than for politicians. Some do, but over the last 11 years it’s been comparatively rare. The days when big city papers took on the White House and were seen as heroes seem vanishingly far away. Quaint almost. It gets easier once an investigative trend is up and running but doing the digging, becoming an outsider, takes a particular kind of character.
Besides, unless what they dig up breaks out of the muffled zone that characterises modern mainstream discourse, all it’s good for is a momentary blip. Everything is soon back to regular programming.
As for whistleblowers, they now need to be crazy brave. The US government really is out to get them, and not just in the wake of the Snowden revelations. They’ve been hounding them for years and there’s no sign of letting up:
The recent charges brought against Edward Snowden make him the eighth leaker to be charged under the Espionage Act under the Obama administration; prior to Obama’s inauguration, the Act had only been used to prosecute three such individuals, including Daniel Ellsberg, since its passage in 1917.
Intended or not (and the evidence favours the former) there’s a tidal flow towards suppression. Our safety valves, journalists and whistleblowers, are at risk:
In a world of total monitoring – where intelligence agencies aspire to collect and store every single email, text message and phone call – serious investigative reporting becomes difficult, if not impossible. Normal interchanges between sources and journalists cannot take place in such a world. Officials who were once willing to talk are already chilled. In future they would be silenced. [Guardian editorial]
All of that’s bad enough. Unfortunately, it seems the clampdown is getting even more pervasive:
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of “insider threat” give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.
Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy for the program that was obtained by McClatchy. [my emphasis]
McClatchy (motto “Truth to Power”) expects the program to be pushed hard in the wake of Snowden’s revelations.
It’s easy to draw dystopian narratives but even on the most sober appraisal there’s scant comfort to be found. From this distant perch I sense a growing insularity, distrust and confusion within America. The burdens of international leadership get heavier by the day while the benefits are more evanescent. If ever it was a good trade, it’s not any more.
Unfortunately, the whole machinery of US public life is wedded to this role. One can argue it was thrust upon them in WWII but at no stage since have they tried to walk away. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 offered a unique opportunity for a reset but instead America radically upped the ante. They’re now living with the consequences.
One of those is this swollen national security apparatus. It’s the misshapen offspring of the deep anger and fear that flowed through those days. Some no doubt saw it as necessary, others as a heaven sent opportunity. Whatever the case, it’s not going to be an easy beast to keep caged.
In some ways, I find the “Insider Threat Program” more unsettling than the obvious bogeymen. There’s something unutterably sad about its small-minded, coercive, spying nature, all so at odds with the America of legend.
Perhaps in time sufficient people will have had enough of these overbearing and costly intrusions to stem the tide and return the state to its proper role as servant.