Everyone is suddenly talking about privacy. That “traitor” Edward Snowden has certainly weakened our government, so our government says he must come back to the US to be charged with illegally disclosing government secrets.
Has he weakened America? Is our society weaker now that we know more about what our government has been doing for years, still is doing, and wants to keep doing? Isn’t it likely that serious terrorists knew much more than we did about how daily communications were being monitored?
That same claim of treason was made, along with the same threats of imprisonment, when Daniel Ellsberg revealed the Pentagon Papers. They were, in Wikipedia’s words, “a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War.” He was accused in federal court of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and of theft – he could have been sentenced to jail for 100 years.
Perhaps it was good for us all that Ellsberg was hauled into court, because at his trial the depth of Nixon administration corruption and law-breaking was revealed. Nixon’s legal counsel and his Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, helped plan the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal all the files about Ellsberg, and called it “Hunt/Liddy Special Project No. 1” in his notes. Their next special project was Watergate.
U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr., dismissed all charges, and ruled: “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.” Perhaps Judge Byrne was offended that Ehrlichman had offered him the job of FBI Director during the trial.
It is surprising to think that the Obama administration’s response to Snowden has been similar to the Nixon administration’s response to Ellsberg. A Republican President supported the criminal enterprise that broke into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office, and then supported his arrest and prosecution. Now a Democratic President, who made more honesty and more transparency a campaign slogan, supports the arrest and prosecution of Snowden.
Our response as citizens should be very different. In June, 1971, Ellsberg revealed things the government knew and had been covering up: how badly the war in Vietnam had been going for years. The war was already unpopular and Nixon had promised an honorable peace in 1968 during his campaign. The Pentagon Papers speeded up a process of popular protest that forced the end of our bipartisan adventure in Vietnam.
Our current situation is more serious. Snowden has revealed a bipartisan government assault on our privacy and on the Constitution. Recording our phone calls and storing our emails by the National Security Agency was widened by the Bush administration and energetically pursued by the Obama administration, with Congressional approval all along the way, and their own private court system to make attack on those policies impossible.
The best weapon against official law-breaking is publicity. Many Americans now call our government’s espionage against its own citizens snooping, instead of defense against terrorism. A few Democratic politicians are criticizing the NSA, but only after an internal audit found thousands of instances where its own privacy rules were broken. Senator Rand Paul has been the most outspoken Republican critic of NSA, but he does not propose anything more than Supreme Court oversight. So don’t expect Congress to do anything fundamental to end the surveillance of our daily lives.
Public opinion is shifting toward opposition to such government surveillance, but not strongly enough to cause political leaders to stop what they have been doing for years. A variety of recent polls shows that Americans are divided about whether this NSA eavesdropping is justified. The Huffington Post poll earlier this month found that 48% believed it was an “unnecessary intrusion into Americans’ lives”. Men were more outraged than women, whites more than blacks or Hispanics, those with less education more than college grads. Opposition to the NSA at this time comes much more strongly from Republicans, who were in favor of snooping when George Bush pushed it, so this might be less about principle than partisanship.
The combination of a few giant companies who carry all of our communications and a government which places its version of security above our right to privacy as citizens means we will be at their mercy unless we offer some alternative view. Here’s one: we don’t trust you to follow your own rules, to respect our constitutional rights, or to use our data only to fight foreign terrorism, so get off my phone line and out of my email.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 25, 2013