Opinion column published in The
State - June 23, 2013
Wonks, Whistleblowers and Watchdogs
Now that we’ve had some time to think about it, reaction
to the U.S. government’s role in monitoring and collecting
our phone and online behavior seems to collect in two boxes.
There’s outrage: How dare they! And indifference: Whatever.
Until we fully know what was done to whom and to what end,
vigorous defense seems muted.
The concern is concentrated in the media, either in the reporting
or the pontificating. The American public, according to a Pew
survey, shows little anxiety. Fifty-six percent said it is
acceptable for the National Security Agency to track the phone
records of millions of Americans.
This divergent reaction is intriguing. Have we transformed
into a society where nothing is presumed to be personal and
private, let alone secret? Are we inured to the idea that someone
is always snooping? Have we seen too many embarrassingly candid
Facebook postings? In a post-9/11 world, have we accepted an
Orwellian Big Brother’s pervasiveness?
I grew up during the Cold War and spent about a quarter century
of my journalism career writing about it. In the Army, I was
a Russian linguist eavesdropping on Soviet radio and phone
traffic from listening posts in Turkey and Pakistan. I think
I can acknowledge that now without violating my Top Secret
As a journalist, I once interviewed a KGB defector and asked
if the Moscow restaurants tourists were allowed to patronize
were bugged. “Every table,” the former KGB officer
said. The paranoia is exceeded only by the absurdity of transcribing
that volume of taped conversations. Living in Moscow in the
late 1970s, I presumed that all I did could be watched and
recorded. In a way, there was a bit of security in knowing
the KGB had your back. Except when they were in your face,
I listened. They listened. That was the Cold War game.
What’s the difference 25 years later? Every table has
become every phone, every computer, every place, all the time.
What we did during the Cold War was rudimentary compared with
today’s technological capabilities.
Rule of law is foundational to the American experience. Has
it been violated in letter, spirit or both? If so, then we
must determine how and by whom. But what if we don’t
know what law is being invoked?
In the post-9/11 milieu, you can be subjected to a law that
you can’t disclose — the Patriot Act — and
put under surveillance by authority of a court hardly anyone
has heard of — FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Court). A multitude of alphabetic agencies — NSA, FBI,
CIA — lay claim to varying parts of the collection spectrum
with little impetus for disclosure.
Collectively, as a nation, we don’t know much about this
netherworld. But every now and then, the sub rosa process is
brought to light by the wonks, whistleblowers and watchdogs.
Edward Snowden appears to fit the wonk category. Something
about his credentials, or lack of them, gained him access to
the massive amounts of data, but with no as yet discernible
interest for its content. In contrast, Wikileaks’ dump
of government communications stems from its founder Julian
Assange’s active cultivation of the disaffected and disenchanted.
Whistleblowers, perhaps, though it’s not always clear
why the whistle is blowing. The watchdog has a clearer view
of policy and transgressions, perhaps an insider’s analytical
perspective. Daniel Ellsberg’s conveyance of the Pentagon
papers to the media defines the category. Some leak because
they can; some because they should.
Most often, the media are the recipients. Then, what’s
a journalist to do? More than anything, we ask questions. The
New York Times asked plenty before publishing the Pentagon
papers. What’s the potential? What’s the motive?
What’s the risk? In Moscow, I shied from one offer of
a shoebox full of papers. Too easily a setup. Accepting the
whistleblower’s delivery, does not mean a journalist
buys in to the story.
Are we well served by government secrecy? Are we naively
complacent? Are we seduced by the peek inside the shoebox?
That is the debate and reason enough for journalists to be
asking these questions, just in case no one else is.