Here’s who should be watching the watchers

July 9, 2014


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


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So you want an oversight committee of the surveillance community. That would not work well as those elected to it would no doubt be well funded by those whose interests are aligned with building a replica of Orwell’s 1984 in America. Rather, I think there should be full disclosure after 10 years of all documentation relating to surveillance of Americans (and obviously a ban on document purging and censoring).

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

When it comes to who has my best interest… If I have to choose between government officials, given power by democratically elected politicians… vs: People who make a living by selling ad and commercial space? Yeah, sorry… I’m going with the first one.

Much of the public is apparently convinced that the government is out to get them. I don’t see it personally, but OK… Whatever. However, for those same people to then completely trust people who’s livelihood depends on selling people information… That makes no sense. The media has somehow managed to project this illusion for a very long time now, that they are this collective group of superheroes… all working for the common good of mankind. When in reality, they’re a bunch of people working for a corporation, looking to make a profit any way possible.

We elect people and those people then give power to others, who have the large and difficult responsibility, of using that power in our best interest. That’s no easy task. For the most part, I think they do a decent job, all things considered. For better or worse, that’s the system. And at least it IS a system. Which is a lot more than many nations have. For all the whining about things like NSA… I’ve yet to see any evidence whatsoever, that an average citizen’s life, was somehow damaged by the actions of the NSA. Which only makes sense, since it’s hard to believe that tens of thousands of people working for the NSA, get up each day and say to themselves… “Gee, how can I screw over my fellow countrymen today”. I however HAVE seen great evidence, that terrorists, and people in many other nations, have damaged the lives of fellow countrymen. So until that changes, I place my faith in the people who have been given the power to do what they do, and do the best they can to protect us. It’s not perfect, but it’s gotten us this far, which isn’t bad. Unfortunately, many Americans are too spoiled to see it that way.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

I’m not too spoiled and I work hard, in other words I do not have a US government job or government contract. I am completely upset that a secret court, which one judge, a true patriot, resigned from in protest, can allow stalinist style spying on Americans. This will not go away with most hard working Americans, and will have an effect politically. The hog at the trough crowd will allow whatever as long as the trough remains overflowing to them; this crowd is most US government entities and agents and their surrogates in the various forms that US surrogates exist, like state government, government contractors, and those who receive a check from the US government for whatever the reason.

Those in marketing started this with their spying and cookies; the public went along. The NSA simply took advantage, and with a secret court to back them up, an UnAmerican notion that needs to be smashed is now saddled upon us!

Our leaders are no more than hogs at the trough, lacking the courage to stand up for American ideas, enslaved to the international corporations and foreign entities (Europe{Germany} and China) and lets not overlook the international banks who dictate to our Federal Reserve, they are really not banks anymore.

dd608’s post is nothing more than swill which is a nice narrative to make the hogs at the trough feel good. dd608, you need to change your screen name since you are obviously a government hog, and I am sure you will since you are weak, like your post, weak with a stink!!

Posted by Billyfrumusa | Report as abusive

Uh… It’s dd606 actually.

Be careful posting stuff like that too often… The men in black might come and get you.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive