Let me stipulate that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not obvious whistleblowers. They deserve fair trials. But what have they revealed?
Mostly information in two categories:
1. Government officials in management roles putting into email and cables unencrypted gossip; and
2. Confirmation that the government has put in place rather openly under the Patriot Act, but perhaps a bit opaquely, an Orwellian security apparatus.
The first item confirms what moderate Democrats like myself and all Republicans already know. Government officials in vast bureaucracies are often incompetent. Most Fortune 500 companies train managers on up that when you have to convey gossip or information potentially unfavorable in hindsight you pick up the phone or visit in person.
You do not send an email or a cable. If you do, you get fired. Apparently that just does not happen in government. Instead you prosecute the person who made it apparent you should be fired.
I accept that the Secretary of State needed to know “that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly asked the United States to ‘cut off the head of the snake’- presumably meaning to attack Iran’s nuclear program.” But only an idiot would put that in writing.
But look at the other alleged damage in what is now an almost three year old Washington Post report on Manning. Supposedly, the embarrassed dictator of Yemen would be too embarrassed to allow us to bomb Al Qaeda. He is long gone and we are busily bombing Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA, has been making the round of talk shows and editorial pages. He tells us that the leaks have taken away an “operational advantage” of the government in its never ending war against Al Qaeda. The current NSA Director, General Alexander, has stated that Snowden’s leaks have caused “significant and irreversible damage” and allowed our Al Qaeda adversaries to counter our techniques.
It would seem after the Bin Laden killing Al Qaeda already knows its phone calls, emails, and other communications are all being read. It is so ludicrous you have to look at a real espionage case for context. Aldrich Ames was a KGB mole in the CIA for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s. The information he gave the Soviets led them to execute US spies working in the Soviet Union.
That is not embarrassing, that is real damage. Manning and Snowden may be traitors, but they are not Aldrich Ames or Kim Philby.
And that is what is so Orwellian about these disclosures. It took me awhile to write this piece because I wanted to go back and reread 1984. The vast web of surveillance from the Telescreen, to the child spies, and the Thought Police all rise slowly, bluntly, repeatedly, until Winston’s greasy existence fascinates you in its horror. Is my comparison overwrought? Perhaps.
But what connects the NSA surveillance of phone and email to Winston’s world is that the US government is collecting or preserving our communications. In Orwell’s decaying London your voice was recorded, your paperwork captured, and your movements even at home were on camera. The defenders of our current programs try to make a fine legal point.
In our world, the Foreign Surveillance Court (FSC) is overseeing the collection and use with warrants and legal opinions and the agencies are informing a select group of the Congress. This is indeed some comfort. But Congress as an institution has a long record of infringing the rights of individuals and the FSC is not a court.
In Orwell’s terms it is Doublespeak. It does not matter if the FSC is really a court or not. The point is Big Brother assures you it is.
I have spent 25 years in and out of Federal courts. United States courts are open to the press and citizens and their opinions published to the world. This is one way citizens determine what is going on in the Republic prior to voting in an election.
The FSC is just an administrative body operating in secret. The press and citizens cannot attend its hearings and its opinions are classified. There is no citizen check on the FSC or Congress because citizens do not have the information.
The plumbing of a surveillance state explained in Doublespeak knowing the government’s record is not yet Orwellian. But the point is that once we create the plumbing it only takes the rise of Big Brother. Why would we want to make 1984 an option?