You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Michael Scherer, Please Remember We've Argued Over NSA Spying Since Before Millennials Were a Thing

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 13 2013

It would be easy to argue that the latest national security leaks are thanks to some combination of Internet culture and Millennial entitlement, as Michael Scherer does in Time's bizarre new cover story and David Brooks tried to do in an intellectually lazy op-ed hanging Edward Snowden, 29, around the neck of "the more unfortunate trends of the age."

This overlooks the fact Snowden is part of an argument, now more than 30 years old, over senior government officials who have skirted the Constitution and then withheld the truth about it to Congress and to the American people. Brooks and Scherer are victims of a logical fallacy. Snowden the leaker of NSA secrets can't be a function of his particular time and place. People have been leaking NSA secrets of exactly this nature since before Snowden was even alive.

In December 1974, Seymour Hersh cited sources inside government in a story revealing that under President Richard Nixon, the CIA collected files on American citizens involved in the antiwar movement. This was a shocking revelation; the CIA — like the NSA — is permitted only to investigate foreign nationals. A few days later, Hersh had another story. Richard Helms, while he was the Director of Central Intelligence, "told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1973 that he could not 'recall' whether the White House had urged the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in domestic spying because of increasing antiwar activity in 1969 and 1970."

A vague and not entirely accurate statement about protecting Americans against government overreach — maybe Helms left a playbook behind for his successors.

In March 2012, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Sen. Ron Wyden that the National Security Agency does not "wittingly" collect intelligence on millions of Americans.

In fact, thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the NSA collects information on the phone calls of millions of Americans.

Clapper now says that he gave Wyden the "least untruthful" answer he could.

Hersh's reporting in 1974 and 1975 led the Senate to establish the Church Committee, which investigated NSA surveillance of Americans. An outgrowth of that reporting is, by extension, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which are supposed to monitor and, when necessary, curtail the doings of government intelligence officers. Except until recently the court had never rejected a government request. As for the Intelligence Committee, most of what its members know is classified and can't be shared, so Americans have no way of knowing if their duly appointed regulators are doing the regulating they are obliged to do.

Into this breach jumps Snowden, a former government contractor who offers concrete evidence proving what years of incremental, thinly sourced reporting had long claimed: The NSA is still spying on Americans. What's more, there's a mechanism in place for the NSA to access billions of electronic communications a year, in secret, probably including communications of Americans. Not only that, but this is all based on recent laws that have never received a thorough public review and the secret rulings of a shadowy court that just doesn't seem to offer any room for appeal.

In a recent blustery article for Time, Michael Scherer puts Snowden in the company of Bradley Manning, now 25, a soldier who leaked video of an American gunship mistaking Reuters journalists for terrorists and killing them, alongside a vast tranche of secret cables revealing what U.S. diplomats really knew and thought about their foreign counterparts; and Aaron Swartz, who was 26 when he died in January, an activist prosecuted not for classified materials but for downloading public court records and academic research. These are the leakers, he writes: Young, radical, deviant, disconnected from society.

"The U.S. National Security infrastructure was built to protect the nation against foreign enemies and the spies they recruit. Twenty-something homegrown computer geeks like Snowden, with utopian ideas of how the world should work, scramble those assumptions," Scherer writes. "Just as antiwar protesters of the Vietnam era argued that peace, not war, was the natural state of man, this new breed of radical technophiles believes that transparency and personal privacy are the foundations of a free society."

Scherer should scramble his own assumptions, whatever that means. No one argues that Swartz was a threat to anything except the bottom line of a few academic publishers, first of all. Years have passed and the government has been hard pressed to point to any concrete evidence that Manning's disclosure harmed a soul. Those "antiwar protesters" had a constitutional right to personal privacy, which was the whole point of the Church Committee's findings. Transparency is the foundation of a free society, especially in modern America, which is why Congress codified a national right to access to information with the Freedom of Information Act — in 1966.

And we've known at least since the Church Committee in 1974 that government officials are not always honest about what they do in the name of American citizens, and they will overstep their bounds when they operate outside of public view — no matter how often they appeal for trust in the name of security.

There's nothing new or especially radical about the idea that government should be accountable and Americans should have a right to privacy, and those ideals are the province of American thought, not young "geeks."

Accountability was the premise that motivated Daniel Ellsberg, who was about 38 in 1969 when he began copying the secret history of the Vietnam War that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He was vilified as a traitor and charged with espionage for revealing what the Defense Department really knew about the war in general and American actions in particular.

Transparency and a right to privacy have motivated the author James Bamford to write regularly about the NSA and its operations since the 1980s.

Concern for those ideals motivated Hersh, almost 38 years after his reporting led to the creation of the Church Committee, to warn that the government after Sept. 11, 2001 "returned to the tactic that got intelligence agencies in trouble thirty years ago: intercepting large numbers of electronic communications made by Americans. The N.S.A.’s carefully constructed rules were set aside."

And the same radical principles motivated David Rohde, who survived months of imprisonment by the Taliban, to write of the Snowden leaks, "As al Qaeda weakens, surveillance should be decreased, not increased. Obama should be slowly dismantling the system, not regularizing and legitimizing it."

"Dizzying rates of technological change have created unprecedented opportunities for government and corporate abuse," writes Rohde, who is about 46 years old and, as far as I know, doesn't hang out at his local Linux Users' Group. "From drone strikes that make targeted killings politically easy to cell phones that automatically track our movements, technology has created torrents of data and unprecedented questions about how government and business should be allowed to use it."

That crazy kid! He shouldn't spend so much time watching pirated "Game of Thrones" episodes on his iPad and get with the real world.

Privacy and transparency? God, Millennials are so entitled.

The headline of this article has been corrected. In an email, Scherer explains that he is familiar with the long public debate over NSA surveillance and has reported on it himself. The full email is at the bottom of this follow-up post. I regret the error.