Whistleblowers, secrets and the public’s right to the truth

“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”
– Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked the details of secret government surveillance operations to the press

One may call it despotic or guarded, paranoid or protective, but the reality of keeping a firm lid on the true nature of the way a government operates disempowers the people that government supposedly represents. Hiding data from the people with a wall of secrecy that keeps them from making informed decisions about a policy, a candidate or a war, is short-sighted and can be assumed to serve only the needs of the withholders, with little regard for the public that elected them.

While it is certainly true that the unwarranted domestic spying activities of the Bush administration were a ruthless broadside to the Constitution, it forced Congress into codifying a legal basis for what government agencies, like the NSA, determined were necessary actions to protect our country. But the DNA of our Republic is not designed to hide so much classified information from so many for so long.

Now, it is finally appearing, more than ten years after 9/11 and the subsequent, draconian legislation known as the Patriot Act, that the unwieldy bladder of secrecy our federal government created has had its fill and is beginning to spring leaks. This is not the light air of happy balloons floating innocuously above the Potomac. This is the Hindenburg, a gas bag in a lightning storm, just waiting for the right spark to explode its cache of secret programs and spill it all onto the ground, below. Oh, the humanity.

President Obama, Friday, defended his administration’s application of the Patriot Act by claiming, “[Y]ou can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices, as a society.” This is a complete reversal of his referring to that exact dichotomy as a “false choice,” when he was running for president.

In his heart, the president must know that there’s nothing to be gained from such ambiguous declarations. In his mind, he surely must realize that for most Americans, our privacy is our security.

The broad subpoena issued against the AP, for its phone records, and the charging of a Fox News reporter as a co-conspirator in a leak investigation, in order to get his records, were just the beginning of the Obama administration’s exposure for abusing a legal privilege to engage in arguably unAmerican behavior.

That is what makes the pursuit of reporters and their sources, as well as the prosecution of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, so disconcerting. Just like the president seems to believe that he and his security agencies have a legal, Constitutional mandate to do what they are doing, Manning’s defense is that he believed he was doing what he had a ethical and moral mandate to do.

“He started selecting information he believed the public should see and should hear,” Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, argued at the beginning of the army private’s court martial, “that would make the world a better place.

“He believed if everyone knew it, it could not be used by the enemy. He started to believe this information should be made public. Americans should know what is happening on a day-to-day basis.”

Edward Snowden has similar feelings about what he did, in exposing the NSA surveillance program details. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he told the UK Guardian. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

The only difference between Snowden’s well-intentioned, defense of “the world that I love,” Manning’s well-intentioned naivete, and the administration’s well-intentioned overreach, is the president can continue to assert that he is doing his job, fulfilling his oath of office. Neither Snowden nor Manning can do that, because their oaths required them to keep secrets entrusted to them.

Obama defended his administration, Friday, by reaffirming that all three branches of government are involved in the data gathering, including the appropriate Congressional committees, and federal judges who are part of the FISA warrant process.

“What you’ve got,” he said, “is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress” and “repeatedly authorized by… bipartisan majorities.” He also insisted that here are “a whole range of safeguards involved.”

But it is difficult for people who are concerned about civil liberties to reconcile the administration’s actions with the free and open society that is essential to our national identity. It therefore becomes an existential threat to what defines us as a country, that our government is spying on journalists, and collecting data from our phone calls and internet activity.

The fact that these reproaches of the public trust have been revealed, though, offers some redemption. We still have a free and active press, who, without regard of the consequences, see it as their job to expose anything that smacks of government overreach into our Constitutionally guaranteed privacy and civil rights. That is the ethical imperative that makes the press do what they have to do.

So the next time you see the president, or the attorney general, or a member of Congress rocked by a revelation in the press, you can feel sorry for them, but recognize that the free press that reports it is working for us. We don’t need to know everything that goes on behind closed doors, and one can make a case for keeping state secrets out of the press, but the spirit of the First Amendment demands that a news organization be free to publish even classified information, if it makes a determination that the public’s right to know outweighs any threat to the operation and personnel involved. On the other hand, to publish a secret just to demonstrate you have the ability to get inside information, in other words, as a self-serving, self-glorifying, marketing tool, is most certainly outside the scope of responsible journalism.

Our job is to educate ourselves enough to parse the stories that move our national conversation forward, from the ones that are designed to distract us and hold us back. Then, when we go to the ballot box, we can make an informed decision, because we will have done due diligence in our support of a policy, a candidate or even a war.


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