On the Run From Big Brother

As Americans have discovered in the past few weeks, Big Brother is watching. And not only watching. Big Brother, a.k.a. the National Security Agency, is listening to phone calls, reading emails, tracking, mining, surveilling, compiling, filing, and storing in digital perpetuity the minutiae of our lives. All in the name of national security, of course.

Do we exaggerate about how far the snooping goes? Hard to say. It’s a big secret, after all, and we don’t have the security clearance for a briefing.

Is it limited to communications peppered with words like “bomb” and “Bin Laden”? Do they only pay attention if you’ve been to the Middle East recently, or have a funny name, like Netanyahu?

And where security-related snooping leaves off, high-tech marketing research takes over. (In fact, now we know there’s a hyperlink between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley.) They want to know all. Which flavor toothpaste you buy. Whether you buy it at Walmart or Walgreen’s. And don’t think it stops there. They will also want to know what brand of matzah you eat on Pesach, or whether you are machmir about chalav Yisrael. If they don’t know yet whether you keep Rabbeinu Tam, or daven nusach Ashkenaz or nusach Sephard, they soon will. Sounds far-fetched? How else will they be able to build a statistical profile that will tell them whether people who eat gebrokts also like that minty flavor when brushing?

President Barack Obama has assured the American people that the broader-than-previously-known surveillance activities of the NSA do not violate the privacy of U.S. citizens. They are fastidiously focused on foreign nationals who could be terror threats.

But there are gaping loopholes in the regulations. For example, the NSA is permitted to eavesdrop on phone or email connections with a person “associated with a foreign power or foreign territory.” So you’re safe from snooping, as long as you’re not an immigrant and have stopped talking to your relatives back home in places like Mexico, or Israel.

What happens when, by some rare goof, the NSA realizes that it is eavesdropping on a “U.S. person’s” communications? It is supposed to stop, at least until it gets the green light from above to proceed, which, based on what it has already heard, may be all the easier.

All this is justified by the priority to protect Americans from acts of terror. NSA director General Keith Alexander has said that U.S. surveillance programs have helped disrupt more than 50 possible attacks since September 11, 2001, including a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.

However, Edward Snowden claims that U.S. officials have been lying about the extent of the spying, and that democracy is being subverted. Nor, he charges, is the U.S. the mere innocent victim of foreign baddies. The Chinese aren’t the only ones doing the hacking out there. The U.S. does it to them too, he says.

Big Brother with a supercomputer makes everyone uneasy. But, as Congressman Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the intelligence panel, put it, “I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.” Which is why there is about as much enthusiasm in Congress for reining in the NSA as there is for parachuting the 82nd Airborne into Aleppo.

The promise of a detailed briefing on the surveillance program for select senators and congressmen may help to allay public concern. But remember, these are the same experts who promised to find weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and predicted the imminent downfall of Bashar Assad about 90,000 Syrian lives ago.

Indeed, these are the same security mavens who let the 9/11 terrorists through their net in the first place. And who now have failed to keep a low-level contractor like Snowden, an intelligence nobody, from blowing apart the whole system that’s supposed to protect us. They can save the homeland from the most diabolical terrorists, but they can’t protect their own stuff?

Still, they say he’s a traitor who has exposed state secrets to hostile powers. They are desperately after him, despite the defiant non-cooperation of China and Russia, where Snowden’s last been seen.

We understand what motivates a whistleblower: the outrage over perceived governmental excess and duplicity, the frustration at not being able to be heard. And one would have to be extremely naïve to be anything but suspicious of vast surveillance after a century that demonstrated the evil potential of the police state, and with much lesser tools at its disposal.

But there is a difference between dissidence and disloyalty. One who bravely risks position and personal security to stand up to the powers-that-be on behalf of the public interest may be a hero — if he does so taking due precautions to avoid revealing information that could harm that same public interest. But someone who perpetrates indiscriminate disclosure and then runs off to Hong Kong and Moscow (not exactly bastions of democracy) is probably not the patriot he claims to be.

We have come a long way from the world of the statesman Henry Stimson, who, as Secretary of War, objected to the creation of a U.S. espionage service on the principle that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

In the world we live in, gentlemen — in order to survive at all — must read each other’s mail and a lot more. How to remain gentlemen while performing these repugnant but necessary duties is not a question for which we have yet found an entirely satisfying answer.