Tonawanda News

July 31, 2013

DUVALL: A second look at national security debate

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Among the big news in what’s been an uncharacteristically newsie week for the dog days of summer was the conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the source of the WikiLeaks ordeal.

It’s one of two stories in the news that should have Americans questioning just how much they trust their government — the other being the increasingly bizarre saga of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who went public with the agency’s massive wire tapping and eavesdropping program.

To be sure privacy has always been a point of friction in the federal government’s attempts to keep Americans safe. How much intelligence-gathering is enough to do the job and how much is too invasive to justify the point of keeping us free and safe?

I generally find myself outside the mainstream on the issue, though probably not in the way most people might guess. 

If there’s one thing I have in common with Tea Party conservatives it’s a general distrust of what the government does in the name of preserving my freedom. 

Does the NSA need to peek in on my personal email? I promise my Gmail account doesn’t have much more than some Groupon offers and a few Facebook and Twitter notifications. My work email? Well I’m not reporting on anything reaching the level of state secrets but it’s a disturbing thought nonetheless that a government agency is hacking into reporters’ email accounts.

There’s a reason they made freedom of speech, expression, religion and the press the First Amendment — because it’s the most important in establishing a truly free and democratic society.

Our government prosecuted Manning, a troubled soldier who was disillusioned with American military affairs on several levels. He had a front row seat and access to classified information that belied the public’s understanding of our conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. He was also an outcast who struggled for acceptance as a closeted gay soldier back in the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which bears some consideration on a personal psychological level if not a larger policy one.

I find less sympathy for Snowden, though his name invokes a literary reference that so neatly encapsulates our present quandary the first time I heard it I thought it was made up. (In Joseph Heller’s razor-sharp military satire “Catch-22” a soldier named Snowden dies, prompting the book’s protagonist to thwart his commanders’ orders and save his own hide.)

I’ll stop short of the most extreme elements in the argument over national security and state secrets. I don’t think Manning or Snowden (the non-fictional one, at least) are heroes. They aren’t martyrs. They knew what they were doing was illegal if not immoral and that it would put more American lives at risk.

There’s a reason things like videos of bombing raids are generally kept classified for many years — so it doesn’t hand a recruiting tool to our enemies.

In Manning’s case, the question is whether the U.S. military and diplomatic corps has been as forthcoming as it should be in describing why and how we wage war. One wonders if a Pfc. Manning had come along prior to the Iraqi invasion and released information contradicting the drum beat to war whether we would have averted a tragic and costly blunder.

In Snowden’s case, it isn’t about the information that’s been collected but whether it ever should have been collected in the first place given Americans never knew the full details on our government’s domestic spying programs.

My essential take is this: Manning’s WikiLeaks case served the greater good in opening Americans’ eyes to how we wage war. Make no mistake: His actions had real-world consequences that endangered men and women serving in various capacities and publication of those documents probably resulted in setbacks fighting terrorists. As far as the overall impact I think the former outweighs the latter.

In Snowden’s case, I think most Americans aren’t as bothered by NSA spying as extremists might think. It’s my sense most citizens assume if the government was ever really interested in reading their email they would be able to pull it off. But Facebook notifications and Internet dating does not a terrorist plot make, so most of us are probably safe in the assumption just because it can be accessed doesn’t mean it’s ever actually processed.

Maybe we should be paying a little more attention to these things but like too many other issues it seems like the national security-versus-privacy debate is being met with a communal yawn.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.