It is a good thing for the American people to know the extent of government’s surveillance of us, and the harms of disclosure, it seems to me, reside somewhere between trivial and none. It’s also crucial to arrest and try Edward Snowden, the former security contractor who released material about the government collecting phone records and more and is now doing his best to dodge arrest.
Am I contradicting myself? I don’t think so.
I think most half-alert Americans know scads of information is classified to avoid political embarrassment or because the government is sloppy about what it hides or just doesn’t trust the public to understand anything anyway. That’s not OK, but here is what we also know: Much material is legitimately classified for important reasons.
Secrecy can be vital in all kinds of matters, not the least of them national security. And if you say it is permissible for people to break their oaths and the law on their own judgment of what should and should not be publicly shared, you may be risking mass killings of the innocent, among numerous other bad outcomes, while building disrespect for law at the same time.
There are obvious complications here, not the least of them the fact that leaking classified secrets is a Washington game frequently played, and not just by previously unknown contractors. During the 2012 presidential campaign year, for instance, a New York Times story quoted “advisers” of President Barack Obama in a story sharing details of how he personally sanctioned drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
I myself have little doubt the revelations were meant to make him look good, and I have a hard time believing these and a number of other high-level leaks on different topics were legal. Maybe there are technical or other factors that erase any criminality, but it was mighty strange stuff from an administration that has prosecuted more leaks of classified data than all other administrations combined. The apparent philosophy was that the political end justified means described by even some congressional Democrats as “harm to national security interests” that was “alarming and unacceptable.”
It’s the case, too, that the press will sometimes print classified material even when warned of dire consequences to public safety. Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment rights have made it close to impossible to stop initial publication or broadcast on most subjects, and there are difficulties as well in prosecution after the fact. While I hardly think the press is always warranted in what it puts on the record, I am also concerned that governmental messing with news poses an enormous threat to our democracy and basic freedoms.
Still, if nothing in our system ever says a meaningful “no” to leakers, there is an end to secrecy and to much safety, especially in a blabbermouth nation like our own. Heaven knows what damage was caused because of Bradley Manning’s divulgence of 700,000 classified files — far too many for him to have been discriminating — to WikiLeaks, a deeply confused, radical, anti-American, morally decrepit outfit pretending to nobility.
Manning is a military guy who seems to have badly betrayed his country. If there is a fair trial that leaves him in prison as a traitor for the rest of his life, that’s fine with me. As for the celebrities who made a video praising him, they have every right in the world to make fools of themselves.
I don’t put Snowden in quite the same camp as Manning, although keep in mind that there were legal means of pressing for public disclosure without his tell-all trip to China and that his further accusation of U.S. hacking of Chinese computers was inexcusable disloyalty of the Manning kind.
There are fakes and there are heroes, and I don’t figure Snowden’s the latter, although there is a way he can make that case for himself: Come home and accept whatever punishment he may get for his civil disobedience.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Email SpeaktoJay@aol.com.)