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College of Information and Communications


Wonks, whistleblowers and watchdogs

Now that we’ve had some time to think about it, reaction to the U.S. government’s role in monitoring and collecting our phone and online behavior seems to collect in two boxes. There’s outrage: How dare they! And indifference: Whatever. Until we fully know what was done to whom and to what end, vigorous defense seems muted.

The concern is concentrated in the media, either in the reporting or the pontificating. The American public, according to a Pew survey, shows little anxiety. Fifty-six percent said it is acceptable for the National Security Agency to track the phone records of millions of Americans.

This divergent reaction is intriguing. Have we transformed into a society where nothing is presumed to be personal and private, let alone secret? Are we inured to the idea that someone is always snooping? Have we seen too many embarrassingly candid Facebook postings? In a post-9/11 world, have we accepted an Orwellian Big Brother’s pervasiveness?

I grew up during the Cold War and spent about a quarter century of my journalism career writing about it. In the Army, I was a Russian linguist eavesdropping on Soviet radio and phone traffic from listening posts in Turkey and Pakistan. I think I can acknowledge that now without violating my Top Secret clearance.

As a journalist, I once interviewed a KGB defector and asked if the Moscow restaurants tourists were allowed to patronize were bugged. “Every table,” the former KGB officer said. The paranoia is exceeded only by the absurdity of transcribing that volume of taped conversations. Living in Moscow in the late 1970s, I presumed that all I did could be watched and recorded. In a way, there was a bit of security in knowing the KGB had your back. Except when they were in your face, or worse.

I listened. They listened. That was the Cold War game.

What’s the difference 25 years later? Every table has become every phone, every computer, every place, all the time. What we did during the Cold War was rudimentary compared with today’s technological capabilities.

Rule of law is foundational to the American experience. Has it been violated in letter, spirit or both? If so, then we must determine how and by whom. But what if we don’t know what law is being invoked?

In the post-9/11 milieu, you can be subjected to a law that you can’t disclose — the Patriot Act — and put under surveillance by authority of a court hardly anyone has heard of — FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court). A multitude of alphabetic agencies — NSA, FBI, CIA — lay claim to varying parts of the collection spectrum with little impetus for disclosure.

Collectively, as a nation, we don’t know much about this netherworld. But every now and then, the sub rosa process is brought to light by the wonks, whistleblowers and watchdogs. Edward Snowden appears to fit the wonk category. Something about his credentials, or lack of them, gained him access to the massive amounts of data, but with no as yet discernible interest for its content. In contrast, Wikileaks’ dump of government communications stems from its founder Julian Assange’s active cultivation of the disaffected and disenchanted. Whistleblowers, perhaps, though it’s not always clear why the whistle is blowing. The watchdog has a clearer view of policy and transgressions, perhaps an insider’s analytical perspective. Daniel Ellsberg’s conveyance of the Pentagon papers to the media defines the category. Some leak because they can; some because they should.

Most often, the media are the recipients. Then, what’s a journalist to do? More than anything, we ask questions. The New York Times asked plenty before publishing the Pentagon papers. What’s the potential? What’s the motive? What’s the risk? In Moscow, I shied from one offer of a shoebox full of papers. Too easily a setup. Accepting the whistleblower’s delivery, does not mean a journalist buys in to the story.

Are we well served by government secrecy? Are we naively complacent? Are we seduced by the peek inside the shoebox? That is the debate and reason enough for journalists to be asking these questions, just in case no one else is.

Bierbauer's signature

Charles Bierbauer, Dean
College of Mass Communications and
Information Studies