Making Sense of the Surveillance Scandals

A roundup of readings.


If you're trying to put the latest revelations about the National Security Agency into a larger context, here are four articles that are worth your time:

* In The Atlantic, Bruce Schneier takes a broad look at recent surveillance stories, reeling off many of the things we now know about how the government spies on Americans and stressing how much we still don't know about how the government spies on Americans. The piece concludes with a stirring call for more leaks. "Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power," Schneier writes. "If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you."

* In The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald picks up and extends the thought. "The way things are supposed to work," he writes, "is that we're supposed to know virtually everything about what [officials] do: that's why they're called public servants. They're supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that's why we're called private individuals." He continues:

This dynamic—the hallmark of a healthy and free society—has been radically reversed. Now, they know everything about what we do, and are constantly building systems to know more. Meanwhile, we know less and less about what they do, as they build walls of secrecy behind which they function. That's the imbalance that needs to come to an end.

* In The Daily Beast, Daniel Klaidman and Eli Lake describe how Barack Obama learned to love Big Brother. This doesn't just mean contrasting his old criticisms of excessive surveillance with his rather different behavior as president; it means detailing the steps he took along the way from one stance to the other. The key turning point came with Sen. Obama's vote for an updated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in June 2008, and his shift only accelerated after he took office.

* Finally, in The Nation, Rick Perlstein offers some historical perspective, looking back at Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Bella Abzug's NSA investigations of 1975. This isn't the first time Americans have been alarmed at the agency's activities, and this isn't the first time there's been talk of reining it in. The whole thing reminds me of Nicholas Dirks' description of the episodes we call "scandals":

For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again.