Chief among these, of course, is our right to privacy, especially from the prying eyes of our government without probable cause. When that is eroded the liberty we love is not only damaged but also is our way of life. There is just no getting around it.
The National Security Agency — an arm of the military — has, as is the historic pattern of unsupervised bureaucracy, insinuated itself into our democratic fabric so thoroughly that nothing short of a major overhaul can put it right. Whether President Obama is willing to reform this scary institution won’t be clear until he returns from his family’s Christmas vacation in Hawaii.
Obama plans to spend that time contemplating the results of a report by a blue-ribbon commission of security experts he appointed soon after the enormous extent of NSA’s spying became public, causing an international sensation that continues unabated. The report made significant recommendations for reforming both the oversight and activities of this super secret agency.
The main ingredient missing in the current policy is diligent oversight. It is woefully insufficient both in the Congress and in the judicial safeguard designed to prevent the kind of abuses revealed by Edward Snowden, the contract employee now hanging out in Russia. Although both houses of Congress have intelligence committees charged with making certain the $50 billion being spent each year on tracking our enemies and, it seems, also our friends is in keeping with the nation’s laws and principles. But there is growing evidence that in the wake of 9/11 congressional overseers ignored the dangers.
Then of course there is the FISA court established to certify that warrants sought are backed up with legitimate need. But this is a one-sided affair in which the government gets what it wants without much challenge. Otherwise how would any federal judge serving in that post permit such extensive fishing in the public communication pond even if NSA contends that it merely registers who calls whom without tapping into their conversations? By the way, that’s a claim no one can verify.
No one in this volatile age believes we should return to the days when gentlemen didn’t read other gentlemen’s mail. Intelligence gathering is a vital tool for preserving our democracy, but only if those using that tool don’t convince themselves about the end justifying the means and methods. In the current case, NSA’s claims of using means that have prevented another end like 9/11 are not only exaggerated but hard to support at all, according to the presidential panel’s report.
Then there is Snowden. Is he a legitimate whistleblower or a traitor as some would paint him? There is little doubt in my mind had he not become the bearer of bad tidings, we might have gone blissfully along believing we were immune from the increasing big brother aspects of our society; that we would have felt secure from the Orwellian predictions that have come true under totalitarianism elsewhere. There are serious questions about whether his motives were for his own self-aggrandizement or a legitimate concern for his country or a sinister attempt to harm it. We may never know.
What about the publications that disseminated so dramatically the original startling information — namely the Guardian of England and the Washington Post? Did they properly use the watchdog function newspapers traditionally follow to keep governments honest or were they the purveyors of irresponsible sensationalism as critics contend? The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, I know well. He has been a longtime defender of ethical journalistic principles. The same holds true for the Washington Post’s editors. I might criticize both for other reasons but not in this case.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama must now make one of the thorniest decisions he is likely to face in the rest of his term — whether or not to accept the fact that an enormously important U.S. agency has gone way too far or just ignore the findings of his own panel which happens more often than not with similar presidential commissions.
Dan Thomasson is a longtime Washington journalist and former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.