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Jane Ahlin, Published June 15 2013

Ahlin: History is clear: Leaks are the American way

A cartoon by Joe Heller called “Cellphone Contract” shows a cellphone salesman telling a family, “That phone comes with a two-year contract and a lifetime of warrantless scrutiny.”

Visible in the background is a NSA operative in dark glasses with a mass of data-gathering instruments.

The unfolding of the NSA leak story is far from finished. Edward Snowden, the tech guy who exposed the secret programs is being vilified by many and praised by some. At this point, we don’t know how his actions will be seen as time goes by.

The initial course of the story, however, brings to mind another time – the 1970s – not only the Daniel Ellsberg leak of the Pentagon Papers, papers that showed that the government knew the Vietnam War was not winnable and lied to Congress and the American people about it, but also the expectation back then that Ellsberg would go to prison for his leak. And he probably would have if the Nixon administration had not OK’d the infamous “Plumbers” who burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to find discrediting information on him.

Today we recognize that Ellsberg was on the right side of history. In the story of the Nixon-Watergate years, he is seen as a brave man who did the right thing in exposing government secrecy that unnecessarily cost so many American lives.

Some 30 years later, Colin Powell was not on the right side of history; neither was his revelation of top-secret information the result of a leak. After Powell testified at the United Nations on America’s proof that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction,” his performance came to be seen as the dog-and-pony-show for the Bush administration’s unnecessary Iraq invasion. Actually, this past week during FBI Director Robert Mueller’s testimony that current NSA surveillance would have prevented the 9/11 attacks, many observers likely had Powell flashbacks.

Mueller’s impassioned assertions about the dire consequences of Snowden’s leak were met with skepticism. As some House members on the judicial oversight committee made clear, Mueller’s notion about the NSA phone sweep preventing 9/11 was a wee bit hard to endorse since NSA snooping had not prevented the Boston Marathon bombers. For his part, Mueller insisted “dozens” of terror attacks had been thwarted by NSA surveillance and promised that details of foiled attacks would be forthcoming.

Perhaps they will. And yet, so far, the take-away for us average citizens understandably centers on the balance of our right to privacy with the government’s insistence on secrecy. At what point does one trump the other? And how can we know? After all, as one observer put it, post- 9/11, the government operates with the help of a “secret court that has secret interpretations of secret laws.”

What the NSA leak has given substance to is the uncomfortable sense Americans have had since 9/11 that our government wants us kept in the dark. We’re not to worry our little heads that 1.2 million Americans with top-secret security clearance is a number much too great to rule out unnecessary – even retaliatory – snooping on people not suspected of any wrongdoing, especially considering almost 40 percent of the top-secret folks work for private contractors doing government work. Indeed, Edward Snowden was among the 40 percent.

No matter what the final judgment of Snowden turns out to be, by bringing to light the “metadata” collection of American phone records – hundreds of millions – along with secret data mining of nine U.S. Internet companies for social media exchanges begun on foreign soil, Snowden has brought into focus how little we know about our government’s extensive and secretive surveillance of us. (As one friend put it, “It’s creepy.”)

Although current news stories have more to do with the motivations and legal problems of the leaker than with revelations about the leaked material, that won’t always be true. The NSA program may prove to be vital for national security, but the arc of history bends toward leakers.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com