Here’s who should be watching the watchers
The files stolen from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, the quiet American who has turned the security world inside out, drip out week by week – in The Guardian, on the new website The Intercept, financed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, in the German weekly Spiegel and in the Washington Post. The last of these outlets had the latest installment on Monday. It told us that “ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike” had been swept into the NSA’s computers in far greater numbers than foreigners reasonably suspected of possible terrorist links.
The leaks present the most profound challenges to free societies, because freedom is not a steady state — once acquired, never lost — but rather one that constantly waxes and wanes, loses and gains.
The first of these challenges is to journalism itself, and it’s twofold. Snowden, the journalist Glen Greenwald who is an associate in publishing the files and others in the “radical leaks” community, such as Julian Assange, believe that the extent of the surveillance and the power it gives to the state to oppress citizens is so great that only their form of journalism is capable of exposing the danger and rousing people to opposition. Greenwald writes in his memoir, No Place to Hide, that journalism must be “an act of aggression against the government.” He thinks that the check the Fourth Estate is supposed to provide to government “is only effective if journalists act adversarially to those who wield political power.” The largest dereliction of journalistic duty is to be “subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying rather than scrutinizing its messages and carrying out its dirty work.” His view is an angry, uncompromising challenge to the values and practices of the mainstream media.
Yet the other challenge to journalism that industrial-scale leaking poses is that of the huge power it places in editors’ hands, as to what to publish and what to redact. Journalists, even responsible ones (and I believe in the responsibility of those who sit in the editorial chairs of the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Spiegel) cannot know in every detail what the dangers of publishing secrets are, how far they might aid would-be terrorists. It’s a reasonable suspicion that the security services exaggerate the danger. It’s unreasonable to suppose there is none.
The second challenge is to governments and the intelligence agencies. Even on a benign reading of their actions, the spy agencies, in concert with governments, have disguised the extent of their surveillance and have thereby diminished trust in them. Of course we continue to demand of them to keep us safe by knowing what would-be terrorists would do to attack us – and this at a time when the experts everywhere agree that the terrorist threat is worsening. And of course they have specialized knowledge and protocols that cannot be divulged, and that makes second-guessing them a fools’ parlor game – albeit one that is played now in many parlors of the Western world.
But we can’t rest content with the assurance that all is well and no more can be said — because the terrorists will only gain. Democratic societies aren’t meant to act like that. One way of looking at such societies is to admit that they institutionalize distrust: whereas non-citizens of a dictatorship depend for their wellbeing on the hope that they can trust the dictator not to oppress them too much, democratic citizens strive to make sure their elected leaders and representatives can’t oppress them by checking them all the time. With different layers of government. With laws that apply to all. With independent courts, media, unions and NGOs. If these do their jobs, society is a cacophony of checks constantly seeking a balance – which is never forever.
In both the United States and the United Kingdom — the main targets of the Snowden leaks — a large part of the loss of trust has lain in the apparent flaccidity of the bodies that oversee the security services – which include the legislatures themselves or groups chosen from their members. It’s well to use “apparent” because, in the main, the work of these bodies is almost as secret as that of the agencies And though it may be, as they protest, that they are strict and conscientious in their assigned tasks of supervision, we don’t know thatbecause we can’t see it.
And thus the last challenge is to us, the citizens. We should press for an institution that could acquire through the importance granted it and the quality of its leader(s) a status equal to that of a supreme court or a major regulatory agency. That institution would guide us through the surveillance age, able to inform us of how surveillance is applied, why it is needed, how it may be minimized and, as far as possible, how effectively does it do its work .
It would be a task of huge complexity and delicacy, for it would at the same time have to assure itself of the legality of the security services; assure citizens that what these services were doing was commensurate to the severity of the threats presented to the state, and know enough to be sure of its judgments but be secure enough never to betray those that might endanger lives. But modern government is complex and delicate, and we know there are men and women who can rise to such challenges because we have seen them do so.
The challenge to us is to believe that such people can work in both our interests and those of the security of the state. The combined effect of the leaks, and of the evasions of the government and the security services, has deepened what is anyway an attitude – often overdone – of distrust and even contempt for elected and appointed officials, attitudes that co-exist with placing large demands on them. We must be able to trust that our societies are healthy enough to produce such people – and we can do that because we can check them.
PHOTO: A parabolic reflector with a diameter of 60 ft. is pictured at the former monitoring base of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling, south of Munich, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle