The news lately about the umbrella of government surveillance claiming to protect us from the rain of terror leaves me high and dry. My feelings on the matter are not without some nuance, and they should be prefaced by some personal history. Two items from my distant past pertain.
Back in 1987, I was having dinner in a Jerusalem restaurant with a dear friend who reads this column faithfully and generally disagrees. Our mutual acquaintance D.S. was fresh off a stint for Military Intelligence, sitting in West Germany and eavesdropping on the East Germans. He had just been offered a gig with CIA and was chewing the offer along with some upscale Israeli cuisine. After wetting his whistle, he blew it a little, telling us stuff we had no business knowing. He said the NSA had the equipment to listen to every single phone call in the United States. They were too busy to sit around monitoring all this chatter, so a computer was programmed to spot red flags.
If you told your shrink your mother-in-law was a “holy terror,” for example. you might be visited by a surly Fed in a trench coat.
Slow forward to 1989. An Israeli magazine paid me to interview Ethan Sones, who had retired at age 19 from being a child prodigy in Washington, D.C. He was a kid from Silver Spring, Maryland, who at fifteen years old scored a summer job in the office of former Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska. He was such a wiz at whatever they assigned him that they prevailed on him to drop out of high school and work for the Senator full-time. At 16 he was getting a nice Federal paycheck and he built up a reputation as an expert in freedom movements around the globe. Three years later he had had enough; he picked up and moved to Israel where he married and raised a family.
I built my interview around his vast collection of business cards from players in the power circles of our nation’s capital. From his description of each figure I gleaned a sense of how Washington operated. Elected officials, appointed officials, aides, bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists; there were many hundreds of cards weaving a tapestry of power and personality.
“What about this guy?” I asked, pointing to a name underscored by a high title in the Department of Defense.
Ethan chuckled. “That guy is privy to highly classified defense information, but he is having an affair with his secretary. The reporters all know but his wife doesn’t. So anytime they need a leak on a high-level defense thing, they call him and he has to tell.”
So on the one hand I was told that the government was tracking all our private calls as early as the Reagan administration. On the other hand I know just how powerful that knowledge can be in manipulating people in positions of public trust. I was against all that snooping then and I do not like it any better now.
The official excuse for this brand of excess is security. To make sure they hear the bad guys they have to listen to everybody. Well, too bad I say. Maybe you’re going to miss some of those opportunities to find the evil lurkers. We should not be patting down little old ladies getting on the plane and we should not be a fly on the wall when they talk recipes with their mahjongg partners.
The idea of a Constitution is to establish the risks we are prepared to take for freedom. Yes, freedom of religion may land us with some wacky cults which brainwash perfectly normal kids to spend their lives mooing or cooing or something. Yes, freedom of the press may infest the public square with wackos like Ed Schultz on the left and Alex Jones on what he calls the right. Yes, freedom against search and seizure may leave us impotent to break into the meth lab without probable cause. Fine, that is a trade we decided to make a long time ago.
Whether this or that leaker is a paragon of virtue or a rascally traitor or a greedy buccaneer is irrelevant. This should be a bipartisan — better, a nonpartisan — issue with unanimous approval. Uncle Sam, there is a reason we bought you that big hat. Take your big ears and tuck them safely inside where they belong.