Dragnet

     I come from a Democratic family. But my nephew in the generation ahead of me and my aunt in the one behind me are not particularly upset that the NSA is tapping the trunk lines of email and cell phone communication.
     Nor do they think that tapping into Google’s cables or German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone is a big deal.
     They say, in essence, that the Europeans are not holy when it comes to spying and the need to stop dangerous plots justifies the means.
     And both also say that the revealer of the NSA’s dragnet, Edward Snowden, is a traitor. And thus that a secret spying program was better kept a secret.
     Those views seem to be reflected widely in the Anglo-Saxon community. A BBC reporter said the other night that the NSA’s actions were seen in Britain as something that mattered only to “the chattering class.”
     The Germans, said the same reporter, felt otherwise. They had experienced the extremes of state control from both left and right, and, like a ghost from those long national nightmares, they saw the NSA spying as a sign of the totalitarian hand.
     I had two answers to my relatives.
     I thought that a democratic society is one where its citizens are informed about what the government is doing. Paraphrasing my aunt who agreed on that point, “How are you supposed to participate if you don’t know what’s happening.”
     The second, which I will come back to, had to do with the conviction that there is no easy fix, no new technology, no new weapon, that uncovers criminal plots. Success is based on hard work.
     To my nephew, I defended Snowden, saying he had been in my view extraordinarily articulate in explaining that it was the lack of informed consent that had made him go rogue.
     “So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” Snowden told New York Times reporter James Risen in article published last week.
     “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem,” he added. “It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”
     I agree on that part, that a secret government program that spies on the governed, enforced by oaths of secrecy, is bad.
     The truth behind the government’s smokescreen is a particular fascination for journalists, it’s true. But I believe that aspect of our profession is a big part of why the foundational law of our nation protects the press and why today it is often judges who best understand and indeed defend the role of the press rather than government officials and bureaucrats.
     Democracy does depend on knowing, in broad terms, what the government is up to.
     As far as my conviction that hard gumshoe work is what solves crime, and not a new toy, I go back to the Los Angeles Police Department, and its battering ram.
     When I was a young reporter, I remember quoting police officials on the effectiveness of the battering ram, basically a tank that knocked down houses. Those guys loved that thing.
     But a year or so later I was writing a story on a settlement after, not once, but time after time, the battering ram flattened the wrong house, in the process sending a sleepy and very upset resident scrambling out the back door. After quite substantial public expense in buying and outfitting the house flattener, it was quietly retired.
     And so it is that I think wiretapping should be preceded by a warrant and crime is solved through brains and hard work.
     

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