Remember J. Edgar Hoover?
Of course you remember Hoover, and the inordinate power he attained — and employed and abused — during his 37 years as the founding Director of the FBI. (This followed eight years as Director of the Bureau of Investigation, precursor to the FBI.) Hoover collected massive amounts of information (by long-ago standards) that enabled him to blackmail and otherwise threaten those who might seek to rein him in. He parlayed his information-gathering into a reign that lasted under Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
Come the obvious question: If Hoover, operating before computers, before email, before the Internet, could assemble enough information to make him very nearly a fourth branch of government, what risks of over-reach do we run these days, when the National Security Agency makes Hoover seem little more than an upstart?
At this point, it would, I know, be helpful to describe the NSA in some detail — say, for example, the number of people it employs or the size of its budget. Sorry, such data are classified. Estimates of the NSA budget range from $10 billion a year to $20 billion. I have no idea whatever whether those numbers are worrisome. What is important to understand is that it is the natural disposition of entities that have fantastic capabilities to use and even seek to extend such capabilities. Note, as well, that it is exceedingly difficult, if not borderline impossible, for Congress (or the White House, for that matter) to exercise its oversight responsibility.
Now: None of all this would have become grist for public discussion were it not for Edward J. Snowden. Snowden, now charged with espionage, has obviously transformed the international conversation on spying, surveillance, privacy and so forth. In his own view, “The debate they wanted to avoid is now taking place in countries around the world. And instead of causing damage, the use of this new public knowledge is causing society to push for political reforms, oversight and new laws.”
Snowden seems to me entirely correct. Whatever his mix of motives, he has performed an invaluable public service, laying bare massive government activities of which we knew next to nothing before his documents were released. It is because he did that we are now having a truly robust debate on how to balance security and privacy.
Contrast Snowden’s contribution with the extraordinary statement of our Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who told Congress in March that the NSA did not intentionally collect “any type of data at all” on millions of Americans. That turned out not to be true. Or, to put it more bluntly, to be a lie, as Clapper himself later admitted when he described his response as the “least untruthful answer” he could give. But: Among other things, lying in testimony before Congress is a felony. One is bound to ask, a la Socrates: Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is guarding the guardians?
That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is at the heart of the Snowden affair. Snowden has in effect announced that he will guard the guardians. In doing that, he has apparently broken the law — although the charge of espionage seems off-base. If indeed he has broken the law, let him be indicted and tried. If convicted, let him then immediately be paroled, for he has performed a great public service. And then let him be, as he should be, honored and otherwise thanked. Just as Clapper, a confessed liar and, evidently, a felon, should be banished from government.
We citizens are entitled to know what is being done in our name and, allegedly, on our behalf — if not the details, then at least the parameters. Thanks to Snowden, we know much more than we knew before he released the information he — well, stole seems like the right word. As Daniel Ellsberg did in 1969 when he offered the nation what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. And Ellsberg was, indeed, indicted for espionage. In that instance, however, the case was thrown out when the government blatantly misbehaved, relying on illegal wiretaps of Ellsberg’s phone. (Ellsberg recently wrote in The Guardian in praise of Snowden that he believes that the United States has “fallen into an abyss,” but thanks to Snowden, he now sees “the unexpected possibility of a way up and out of the abyss.”)
All this is very distant from the concerns of most Americans. It is not the Affordable Care Act and its oh so awkward roll-out; it is not the so far stalled immigration reform; it is not the imminent debt ceiling debate. It is complicated, rendered all the more so by the intentional misdirection that is the standard to which the NSA folks and their supporters adhere.
Let us hope that Ellsberg is right when he says there is a way out. And let us acknowledge that it is Edward Snowden who has shown and is showing us that way.
Contact Leonard Fein at email@example.com