The Great American Debate of the 21st century — can we safeguard both our freedoms and our lives in the age of terrorism? — erupted without warning just days ago.
It is complex yet simple. Contradictory yet clear-cut. It may never be fully resolved, yet it probably was over even before it began. Early polls show Americans want officials to investigate potential terrorists, even if it means sacrificing personal privacy.
It was just a week ago that a low-level, 29-year-old National Security Agency contractor who never even graduated from high school plunged the highest levels of the United States government into today’s great debate, according to his own account. Edward Snowden, a former CIA undercover employee who was then working for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, did this by committing the intelligence community’s equivalent of an act of terror. Snowden says he was the initially anonymous source who leaked top-secret information to a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and leaked another separate story to The Washington Post.
The Guardian reported that in April, a secret U.S. foreign intelligence court ordered a subsidiary of Verizon Communications to provide the government, on a daily basis, logs of all communications between the United States and other countries and also all communications within the United States. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the leak “literally gut-wrenching” for the damage he and other officials said it did to U.S. efforts to track potential acts of terror.
President Barack Obama weighed in with a perspective that, while firmly presidential, was also professorial.
“I welcome this debate,” Obama said Friday. “And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” As he was saying that, his top officials were urgently hunting for the leaker who had started the debate.
Obama spoke of his commitment to both keep Americans safe yet uphold their “constitutional right to privacy.” He said while this program was classified, all members of Congress have been briefed on what is and isn’t being done. “I want to be very clear ... nobody is listening to the content of people’s phone calls,” Obama said. He explained that intelligence experts are “looking at phone numbers and durations of calls,” not people’s names or content.
On the day Obama spoke out, The Post reported a separate revelation about a plan code-named PRISM, in which the National Security Agency and the FBI have access to emails and other communications sent via nine leading U.S. Internet companies. The president said the provision allowing the government access to Internet and email items “does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”
While officials and ordinary citizens were debating among themselves the trade-off of safeguarding Americans and safeguarding their constitutional rights, journalists have again returned to the question I’ve faced a number of times in my reporting career: how to safely report to Americans what the government is doing — without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence efforts in a way that could harm my fellow citizens. I’ve opted not to publish information in the past, after officials raised compelling concerns. And apparently The Post did, too, just days ago.
Last Sunday, Post correspondent Barton Gellman reported at length about his dealings with Snowden, who’d contacted him in early May. The most interesting disclosure came way down in the 15th paragraph, enclosed within parentheses. It said The Post had asked government officials about “potential harm to national security” that its disclosures could cause. Snowden had given The Post a PowerPoint presentation containing 41 slides describing the PRISM program, insisting all be published. But The Post refused to make that commitment. Based on officials’ concerns, the paper used only four slides. It was after The Post refused Snowden’s demand that the leaker opted for a publication outside the United States and contacted the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who used to write for the liberal website Salon.com.
Still, those who yearn for the good old days, before our privacy became a collateral casualty of the Internet Age, will find a healthy dose of historic perspective in a formerly “top secret” presidential memo, written back when we thought of 1984 and Big Brother as mere Orwellian musings of a distant future.
On Jan. 3, 1975, President Gerald Ford was briefed in the Oval Office by his new CIA director, William Colby: “Subject: Allegations of CIA Domestic Activities.” According to the now-declassified memo, Colby listed things the CIA had done that “it shouldn’t have.” Like spying on dissidents, opening mail to U.S. citizens from the Soviet Union — “we have four to Jane Fonda” — and yes, it named journalists whose phones were tapped. Colby said he’d stopped all that. The president said he wanted all laws obeyed.
“We don’t want to destroy but to preserve the CIA,” Ford said. “But we want to make sure that illegal operations and those outside the (CIA) charter don’t happen.”