Picture yourself at home in your bedroom enjoying the company of your spouse. You receive a call from a neighbor who informs you that there is someone hiding in the bushes outside your bedroom window peering in.
You slip out of bed, grab your baseball bat, and go outside to investigate. There you catch the man in the act. When you ask him what he’s doing, he explains that he is a member of Neighborhood Watch conducting a security round. You demand to know what peeping in your bedroom window has to do with keeping the community safe.
He replies, “Why do you object? If you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you care if others are watching you?”
Would you be satisfied with this response, or would you still be tempted to test the man’s reflexes with your Louisville Slugger?
The reader can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this. For the Peeping Tom, substitute the National Security Agency. For the neighbor who tips you off about the sneaking peeper, substitute Edward Snowden. For the peeper’s arguments of self-justification, substitute the Obama administration’s defense of the PRISM program.
There’s something about democracy that doesn’t like covert surveillance.
Consider the difference in response to a visible surveillance camera and a peephole camera. A visible camera, often accompanied by a notice reading something like “Area under Surveillance,” is in most instances considered an unobjectionable means of deterring undesirable behavior. We accept it without much fuss.
A secret or peephole camera, however, is a different matter. People in a free society are uncomfortable with the thought that the authorities are spying on them without their being aware of it. There’s something disreputable about a peephole camera, something downright sleazy.
Longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a master of covert surveillance. He of course justified his spying on his fellow citizens by saying he was doing it to protect the Republic — to “Keep America Safe.”
In retrospect, however, it is clear that Hoover often used covert surveillance as a means of neutralizing his political enemies. He would order his agents to spy on those who had been critical of him and/or his policies — for example certain members of Congress — this to collect dirt on them, which dirt he could then use to smear or blackmail them.
What the FBI director represented as something necessary to national security, then, was in fact all too often merely a means of protecting and growing his own personal power.
So we see our current crop of would-be J. Edgars howling with outrage at the “treasonous” actions of Edward Snowden.
One such howler is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. When asked recently by Ron Wyden, member of a congressional committee charged with oversight of our intelligence apparatus, if the American government was secretly collecting information on millions of Americans, Clapper answered ,“No” — lying through his teeth.
How can congressional oversight work if the spymaster is blatantly lying to Congress? Obviously it can’t.
Again, our leaders in Washington are now desperately trying to convince us that Edward Snowden is a very bad actor indeed — a hardened criminal who needs to be brought to justice.
One imagines that, back in 1846, the local authorities in Concord, Mass., were similarly trying to convince the public that Henry David Thoreau, who had been jailed for refusing to pay his poll taxes as a means of protesting the government’s toleration of slavery, was a bad actor as well. It was his experience of being so criminalized for conscientious objection that led Thoreau to pen his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience,” which essay has been a source of inspiration for civil rights champions ever since, men such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King (the latter of whom J. Edgar Hoover, our master peeper [see above], hated with a white-hot hate).
Whatever one thinks of Edward Snowden and his motives, there can be no question that, in a society where the government is determined to act in secret, whistle-blowers are necessary if democracy is to survive. How else can the people know what’s going on?
For those who would say that, in a dangerous world, government secrecy is necessary for security, I answer by quoting one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who I think lived in a fairly dangerous world: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Viva Franklin! Viva Thoreau! Viva Snowden! Peepers la bas!