Friday, February 21, 2014

Treason ("The Burglary" by Betty Medsger)

Forty-three years ago, Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger received a package in the mail. While this in itself was not unnatural--in the era before computers and emails, journalists existed through their telephones and mailboxes--what she found inside the package was: photocopies of sensitive FBI documents, all stolen from an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania; and a letter explaining not only where the documents had come from but why they were being distributed to journalists. Other packages would follow, the letter said, though it gave few clues as to what those future correspondences might actually reveal. Similarly, it kept the identity of anyone involved in the robbery hidden--an understandable decision from any point of view. After all, the documents revealed something activists had long suspected but never been able to prove--that the FBI, under the direction of its decades-long leader J. Edgar Hoover, had used its power and resources to monitor, harass, and frame those who spoke out against the government--and the burglars feared what might happen to them if the FBI suddenly found itself backed into a corner.

Now, forty-three years later, Medsger has finally published a comprehensive history of the entire burglary, from its planning to the eventual political blowback, and she's done so through interviews with most of the burglary's participants, who provide fascinating personal insights into why they chose to participate in something that would have undoubtedly landed them in prison for the rest of their lives had they not succeeded. They came from diverse backgrounds, and most were not the full-time activists we now associated with counter-cultural movements of that era, but each of them acted out of concern for their country--a belief that it was falling victim to its own government, which not only encouraged Hoover's crime-fighting public persona through ever-increasing budgets and unchecked power, but also took lessons in deception and corruption from the very same agency. (In one instance, a respected member of Congress from a safe district--reelected with over 70% of the vote--chose to speak out against the FBI and found himself run out office thanks to the Bureau's vengeful rumor-mongering.) Every member of the burglary team save one--a nameless man who drops out of the operation and even threatens to expose it--acted to preserve the rights and freedoms that were being dismantled by the very men and women entrusted to protect them.

A project literally decades in the making, Medsger's book has been released at a moment in our history when we find ourselves glancing down a rabbit-hole that seems all too familiar, only now the actors have changed:  the NSA has taken the FBI's place as the all-intrusive boogeyman, and instead of a team of burglars we have Edward Snowden, a twenty-something contractor who stole, then distributed, millions of sensitive files he managed to access thanks to the American government's surprisingly liberal clearance policies. And while the surface similarities continue from there--journalists who publish the information against the government's wishes, a manhunt for those involved, a call for reform from those very same politicians who have exploited the program for their own benefit--the full convergence of both events is halted by a rather large roadblock known as "the American people." For even though there has been outrage over the idea of a government agency monitoring our every move--phone calls, text messages, emails, social-media updates--and the advances in technology we've seen over the last 40 years have allowed the NSA to collect mountains of evidence in mere seconds--at the click of a button--where the FBI would collect only the occasional mole-hill after weeks of field work, the one large troubling difference between the Media burglary and the Snowden affair is that, rather than outrage, the vast majority of Americans have responded with a shrug. And the reason for this disparity is simple:  September 11, 2001.

For years, Americans were complacent in their attitudes about their own safety; while other countries faced down terrorism in all its forms, America--the world's largest military power, keeper of the greatest stockpile of nuclear weapons, the most influential democracy on Earth--looked out with a mix of pity and confidence. September 11 left the vast majority of Americans shaken and afraid, and in the ensuing years, politicians on both sides exploited this newfound vulnerability to gain more power for themselves while disregarding the very same Constitution they were elected to protect. One after another, they declared publicly that the terrorists hated us "for our freedom" while abandoning the very foundation of the freedom so despised by the terrorists who attacked us. Search warrants became optional, torture became legal, due process was dismissed as irrelevant, free speech was corralled into so-called "zones"...and if those changes weren't enough, they exported our legal systems out to foreign ground, where the Constitution had no jurisdiction, and branded anyone who disagreed as coddlers of terrorism, as unpatriotic, as wishing ill on our soldiers. Fear became the norm, and in its shadow the laws of our land wilted like saplings, unwatered by those tasked with tending to their care.

When we discuss Edward Snowden and the NSA leak, what we're really talking about is our own privacy--namely, how much of ourselves we are willing to give up for guarantees of safety. When Hoover was using the FBI to track, intimidate, and even frame those who spoke out against the government, secrecy was easy; unless someone bugged a phone or followed your daily routine, your life was as closed off to the world as you wanted it to be. Conversely, privacy is Sisyphean feat in modern times; even without our permission, most of our personal information--court records, addresses, civic activities, even photographs--finds its way online anyway, and those with an active online presence are leaving behind volumes of autobiographical information on an almost yearly basis, whether they realize it or not. Fighting back against Hoover's FBI was easy--it required no sacrifice on the part of everyday citizens. Today, citizens who want to fight back against the NSA have to abandon everything that makes our lives easy and connects us to one another: email, smart phones, online shopping and bank accounts, social media, the internet, and so on. We'd have to return to a life that better reflects that of forty years ago and live virtually off the grid...something most Americans flatly refuse to do, regardless of how intrusive the alternative may be. We've been told in the years following 9/11 that everything we do is now monitored, just as we've been told that our world is populated by those who would wish to do us harm, and in order to address the latter we must accept the former...a choice that is by no means legitimate but one that allows us to feel a small sliver of how we felt on the days before we lost our sense of safety. Most Americans, it seems, are fine with this resolution.

The problem is that, as we learned all those years ago, the people we often entrust with our safety have little interest in protecting anything other than their own power. Hoover was the head of the FBI for decades, and by the time the Media office was burglarized, he had ruled over his fiefdom--a personality cult, an empire of concentrated power--longer than any one man had been president, only with much greater influence and little if any oversight. Today, only a minuscule amount of Snowden's leaked data has been released by the journalists to whom it was given; there is much more to come, and by the journalists' own admissions, these future revelations are just as damaging. We can draw comparisons between Edward Snowden and the Media burglars all we want--both are traitors, according to those whose secrets were revealed, just as both are patriots in the minds of those fighting to preserve Constitutional freedoms--but none of it matters if the information footnotes history instead of changing it.