An old journalism saw goes like this: Dog bites man, no story. Man bites dog, story. Allow me to update it. Government monitors email and telephone calls for national security, no story. Government doesn't do anything of the kind -- now, that's a story.
Clearly some awfully good newspapers and some awfully good reporters disagree. In the last week it's been raining stories about what the busybody government has been up to. The National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone calls and emails -- and even social media stuff of the sort you shouldn't have been doing anyway. To this, a whole lot of people have expressed shock. Oaths to the Fourth Amendment have filled the air. Unreasonable searches are simply unconstitutional, they assert -- without asserting that anything has in fact been searched or seized. It has merely been noted and, if suspicious, referred to a court for the appropriate warrant.
The programs certainly can be abused. (So can local police powers.) But oddly enough, proof that this has not happened comes from the self-proclaimed martyr for our civil liberties, Edward Snowden, late of Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor that ever so recently employed him. (I assume he'll be summoned to HR.)
In a remarkably overwrought interview conducted by the vainglorious Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, Snowden cited not one example of the programs being abused. Greenwald wrote that Snowden "lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping" and that "he puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them." Greenwald said that "Snowden will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistle-blowers." I think he'll go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.
Greenwald likens Snowden to Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post more than four decades ago. Not quite. The Pentagon Papers proved that a succession of U.S. presidents had lied about their intentions regarding Vietnam -- Lyndon Johnson above all. In 1964, he had campaigned against Barry Goldwater for the presidency as virtually the peace candidate while actually planning to widen the war. As the Times put in a 1996 story, the Pentagon Papers "demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance."
In contrast, no one lied about the various programs disclosed last week. They were secret, yes, but members of Congress were informed -- and they approved. Safeguards were built in. If, for instance, the omniscient computers picked up a pattern of phone calls from Mr. X to Suspected Terrorist Y, the government had to go to court to find out what was said. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act established a court consisting of 11 rotating federal judges. These judges are the same ones who rule on warrants the government seeks in domestic criminal cases. If we trust them for that, why would we not trust them for other things as well?
Whenever I see "Hello, Richard" on my computer screen, I realize what's happened: It knows me. It knows what I bought and when I bought it and where I was at the time. It knows my sizes and my credit card number and if it knows all that, it knows pretty much everything. I long ago sacrificed a measure of privacy for convenience. One click will do it.
I also made the same sort of deal for security. I assumed the government was doing at least what Google was doing -- and Google, I'm convinced, is the new Santa Claus: It sees you when you're sleeping, it knows when you're awake. It knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake. In 2009, Google's Eric Schmidt put us all at ease by telling CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." See, not all billionaires are so smart.
Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career and, undoubtedly, his personal freedom to expose programs that were known to our elected officials and could have been deduced by anyone who has ever Googled anything. History will not record him as "one of America's most consequential whistle-blowers." History is more likely to forget him. Soon, you can Google that.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group