Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Leaking government secrets: patriotic?

This past week we learned that a 29-year-old systems administrator working for the NSA -- actually working for Booz Allen, under contract with the NSA -- leaked classified information about two government programs to access telephone records and Internet traffic. (More about this story here.) Both are part of the government's efforts to combat terrorism and, arguably, make us all safer.

The counter argument is that the government is accessing massive amounts of personal data that should be private, violating the Constitution's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. From this perspective, the leaker and the two newspapers that published the material (The Guardian and The Washington Post) serve the public interest.

My brother Warren, a journalist, has been "debating" the issue with a few of his colleagues, copying me on the back and forth. The discussion stimulated me sufficiently to chime in. To wit,

I'm old enough to remember Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, yet too young to recall the details to be able to discern the parallels and differences with this incident.

Nonetheless, from my vantage point on the far side of the elephant, I think the disclosure is beneficial for (hopefully) starting a public debate on the rights of the government to sweep our personal data. The Supreme Court borrowed from Donald Rumsfeld when it declared that you can't sue for what you don't know. Now we know what we didn't know, and I see where the ACLU has already filed suit.

Despite the administration's declarations of transparency, one cannot disclose a secret without losing one's security clearance and likely going to jail. So even before Congress, the system requires one to lie, rather than tell the truth. The only way for the truth to out is through leaks. Ironically, while the public and the press benefit under our First Amendment rights, the leaker will likely go to jail.

Last point: I don't agree that this disclosure will compromise national security. I have long assumed that we have the capability, technologically, to read and listen to most any conversation that interests the government. For a terrorist to be surprised by this disclosure suggests a high degree of naivete; just look at the precautions taken by Osama Bin Laden to avoid creating a digital trail.

Sorry, one more last ironic point: while we worry about the Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE providing equipment for our telecommunications networks, the threat is really the "lowly" IT guy.