HARPER: A 1971 heist sheds light on Snowden dilemma for media

As President Obama prepares to change the way the U.S. gathers intelligence, he faces another difficult issue: What exactly should he do with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the extent of the spying in the first place?

At least two major media organizations have expressed their viewpoints. The New York Times and The Guardian of Great Britain, where journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed the secrets Mr. Snowden had stolen, called upon Mr. Obama to grant clemency to the whistleblower, who’s now living in Russia. So far, the White House has rejected the call.

“Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service,” The Times wrote in an editorial. The Guardian wrote that Mr. Snowden “gave classified information to journalists, even though he knew the likely consequences. That was an act of courage.”

But is it acceptable for someone to steal classified material for the greater good? Simply put, do the ends justify the means?

Only this past week did the secrets of another theft of government documents — taken in 1971 — come to light. Ironically, the story is not unlike that of Mr. Snowden, except he made his name known while the 1971 thieves of FBI documents from an office in Media, Pa., kept their names a secret until now — years after the statute of limitations had expired and they were safe from prosecution. Moreover, the incident occurred a few months before the delivery of what became known as the Pentagon Papers, stolen by Rand Corp. analyst Daniel Ellsberg, to The New York Times about the Vietnam War.

Betty Medsger, a former reporter for The Washington Post, revealed the story of the FBI theft, which is part of a new book and a documentary.

“On March 24, 1971, I became the first reporter to inform readers that the FBI wanted the American people to think there was an ‘FBI agent behind every mailbox,’” she wrote. “That rather alarming alert came from stolen FBI files I had found in my own mailbox at The Washington Post when I arrived at work the previous morning.”

Ms. Medsger eventually received 1,000 pages of documents from a group calling itself the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, taken from an office near Philadelphia. The group, which included two college professors, a taxi driver and a social worker, launched the burglary to see what the FBI was up to under longtime Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon.

As it turned out, the FBI was spying on blacks, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and peace activists throughout the country.

The difference between the FBI case and the NSA case is relatively small. I don’t condone either action. I think the FBI group and Mr. Snowden are neither traitors nor heroes, although I am troubled by their actions.

Back in 1971, only a few laws provided protection for whistleblowers — none of which dealt with revelations about the FBI. Even though whistleblower laws exist for a variety of topics, including labor hazards and food and water quality, none clearly covers abuses of intelligence gatherers.

Therefore, the FBI robbery gang and Mr. Snowden went to journalists to tell the stories of abuse. One change that should occur would be the ability of individuals to provide safe and secure ways to provide information to an independent agency or special counsel when they see abuses of government power. That way, we would not have to debate whether the ends justify the means, because they don’t.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51.

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