Many Americans think Edward J. Snowden is a criminal, or worse, for revealing government secrets, however pernicious. Others, who put their faith in limited government, think blowing the whistle on this surveillance does the country a service.
In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian, Mr. Snowden describes how the National Security Agency collects everyone’s communications — from the innocent and the criminal alike. “It ingests them by default,” he explained. “It collects them in its system, filters them, analyzes them, measures them, and it stores them for periods of time simply because that’s the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends.”
In a democracy, matters of widespread public interest are meant to be discussed and decided on by our elected representatives, and done in the open. Openness doesn’t guarantee the right decisions will always be made, but it will keep the public in a position to check the government when it steps out of line. That’s why the Founding Fathers required Congress to regularly publish its expenditures and activities, with a proviso that certain particulars could be kept secret if necessary. George Washington exercised the secrecy clause by withholding the text of the instructions he gave his minister, John Jay, for drafting a treaty with Great Britain. The first president explained that letting the world know what deals he would and would not make “might have a pernicious influence on future negotiations.” The treaty was ratified by the Senate, in the open.
The latest revelations will have no pernicious effect because our enemies assume Uncle Sam has been listening. Al Qaeda operatives use codes, dead drops and encryption to carry out attacks, such as the Boston bombings, under the nose of the mass surveillance. That’s what spies and terrorists do.
Google, Facebook and the other companies play along, denying that the government is directly tapping into their servers. This is an empty assurance, considering that these companies could never legally admit to allowing a tap. The court order authorizing blanket interception of “all call-detail records” from Verizon instructs that “no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this order.”
Such extreme secrecy isn’t about making sure that China or the Taliban never learn about U.S. surveillance capabilities, but about keeping ordinary Americans in the dark about what’s going on. The Nixon administration was brought low by the bungled bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters 41 years ago. Now every telephone in the country is tapped. A lot of people are unhappy about it, and we can be sure that the unelected bureaucrats in charge of these powerful surveillance tools will say whatever it takes to keep them.
A few analysts operating in secret have access to every embarrassing photograph, incriminating text message and off-color remark ever made on a telephone or over the Internet. The lesson here, so far, is that if the government won’t tell the public what’s going on, someone will. It’s not the way to run a government, but this government brought it upon itself. The Founding Fathers would never have entrusted power over such information to a handful of men. Neither should we.
The Washington Times