Who Keeps the Secrets?

Since last summer, much has been said and written about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the release of sensitive information through the actions of Edward Snowden, the disaffected contract employee in the Hawaiian division of the agency.  Some argue that he is a whistleblower, or a “hero” for exposing the extent of NSA operations.  Others call him a “traitor” or an egomaniac out for his own purposes.  I tend to gravitate towards the latter.

In studying why people spy, or betray their country, or otherwise do harm to their nation’s security, old-time analysts refer to the motivation as being a result of MICE.   That is, Money, Ideology, Coercion, or Ego are the prime motivators.  Usually it only takes one, but sometimes it is a combination of things.  Obviously I have no idea what motivated Edward Snowden because I have never talked with him.  However, based on his actions and pronouncements via news sources, it seems to me that he is pretty full of himself, regardless of his stated intentions.  It appears that he thinks that he and he alone, can best determine what may or may not be in the best interests of the United States and his fellow citizens.  That to me takes a huge ego.  Further evidence of the ego involved comes from the fact that he has not released all of the information in one grand action.  Rather, he is letting it out in bits and pieces, apparently to keep his name at the forefront of the furor he has created.

More importantly, now that the information is out there, and we as citizens as well as those of other nations are aware of the extent of the collection capabilities of the NSA, the question becomes one of whether it is right to do all of things that Snowden’s revelations indicate are being done.  Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, is to have famously said, “Gentlemen do not read each others mail.”  This came after he learned of the “Black Chamber” or a combined U.S. Army and State Department cryptanalysis effort started following World War I.  (He later had a totally different viewpoint of such activity when he became the Secretary of War during World War II.)

Such a hands off approach, then or now, is disingenuous to me.  Of course nations need to gather intelligence, even in times of peace and about our friends.  The real question is how does a nation, especially the United States, balance the need for collecting such information with the freedoms that we hold dear in our country?  There is a saying that “the price of safety is eternal vigilance” and surely we cannot be naive enough not to understand that there are people and nations that wish us harm.  At the same time, we do have laws that govern what may and may not be done in the name of that vigilance.

I am not entirely comfortable with the system of checks and balances that have been instituted under the law to protect our rights to privacy.  The courts and Congressional over sight are not foolproof, but I think that despite my qualms, they are sufficient to ensure our basic freedoms.  While no system is perfect, and serious inquiry into how well it is working is welcomed, in fact it is a necessary part of our warning systems to protect our nation from harm.

I am not a “whatever it takes” kind of person when it comes to securing our nation.  If all of the safety and security people had their way we would all be lined up in little plastic cocoons with no danger of hurting ourselves or others.  Our basic way of life is fraught with risks.  Indeed, our form of government is fraught with risks.  It seems that every time something “bad” happens a new program, requirement, or system is installed and everyone is subjected to the same scrutiny, whether or not the odds of it ever happening again are very high, whether or not the danger is real, and whether or not the impact of that activity is very substantive.  Some of these new procedures and requirements in the name of safety and security are not always better, or even very good, ideas.

Thus our current dilemma continues.  What is in the best interest of our national security while preserving the ability to know that what should be private remains private?   I am somewhat distressed at the protests over the NSA activities (which by the way, by law, cannot be conducted against U.S. citizens without court approval) compared with the nonchalant acceptance of Google, or Facebook or Amazon learning every thing there is to know about your habits, likes, dislikes, etc. etc.  I daresay that those internet companies know a lot more about individual Americans than the NSA could ever hope to know.  I for one am significantly less comfortable with the information collected by businesses of all types in the daily transactions of existence, and what they do with that information, than I am with the NSA.

Let Edward Snowden be a warning not only about the capabilities of the NSA in collecting data, but perhaps in even stronger terms, let it be a warning of what takes place in our everyday world on behalf of businesses and other non-governmental organizations in the name of “convenience” as we live our lives.

2 Comments on “Who Keeps the Secrets?”

  1. Mike West says:

    Tom- Good topic, one about which I’m really torn. In my younger days, I was all for speed cameras and other such devices, for “if you’re not breaking the law, what do you have to be concerned about?” was the sentiment. But over the years I have drifted in the opposite direction. I am getting really, REALLY sick of “I know what’s best for you” politicians (see: gun control, (now) speed cameras, and most ridiculously, the size of soda pop servings in NYC.) The government simply needs to BUTT OUT of my personal life…I can carry on just fine without them, I assure you. If I want a 426 ounce “Thunder Gulp” at 7-11, that’s no one’s business but mine. Period.

    How does this fly in the face of the NSA? In reality, I’m not sure. I love the idea of staying ahead of the bad guys (and eves-dropping on allies doesn’t bother me either…you know they’re doing their best to listen in on us too), but when it comes to them listening to ME, well, harrrumph! now I’m not so sure. Yep, I see the contradiction too. Not sure what the “right” answer is, but if the NSA comes knocking after I send this, I guess we’ll both know they don’t like my response!

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