A new book by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger identifies the burglars who stole documents 43 years ago from an FBI field office in Media, Pa. Those documents, leaked to the Post, exposed the existence of Cointelpro, a massive domestic spying operation the FBI carried out for decades. The revelations led to widespread reforms in U.S. intelligence gathering policies.
Philadelphia Magazine dubbed left-wing activists John and Bonnie Raines “the Edward Snowdens of Philadelphia,” referring to the former National Security Agency contractor who last year revealed details of some of the U.S. government’s most closely guarded surveillance secrets in the war on terror.
Are the actions of John and Bonnie Raines four decades ago really comparable to Snowden’s today? Does the U.S. government have too many secrets? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
Even now, 40 years later, there’s reluctance in some quarters to give John and Bonnie Raines – along with their allies who planned and executed the FBI break-in – their proper status as heroes of freedom.
“I don’t believe such people have the right to take it upon themselves and make decisions about what should be made public,” grumbles Pat Kelly, who was an FBI agent at the office that suffered the break-in. He called the perpetrators “criminals, not patriots.”
“Such people” revealed that the FBI was acting illegally by surveying and undermining domestic anti-war groups – a bit of information that casts Mr. Kelly’s categories of “criminals” and “patriots” into new light.
It might be hard to draw lessons for today from a 40-year-old example, except that the incident confirms lessons from nearly every other revelation of classified information since then: The more secrecy the government has, the less privacy you have. The more secrecy the government has, the less information you as a citizen of a democracy have to guide and influence the decisions of your elected officials in Washington.
Consider: Nearly 5 million Americans have security clearances that allow them access to classified information; the government classifies more than 90 million documents a year. Everybody agrees that there’s too much information being classified, but almost nobody is doing anything about it.
Which means that our governance is happening in the dark, underground, away from the prying eyes of the public it is supposed to serve. This is not what we should want for ourselves as free people.
Not everybody can be John and Bonnie Raines. Not everybody should be Edward Snowden. But when they do act, we should understand they act as citizens defending freedom and democratic governance. Otherwise the presumption is that government gets to keep its secrets and private citizens don’t. It’s a vulgar idea, unworthy of our ideals.
Even open societies have secrets to keep. Democracies face dangers that make pure transparency impossible. Against the public’s right to know is a duty to keep vital information from our enemies, of which the United States has no shortage.
Trouble is, too much secrecy can foster corruption and all sorts of illegal behavior. The U.S. government has no shortage of all that, too.
Americans have every reason in the world to distrust their government. It’s too large, too unaccountable, and often too stupid to be safe. The problem with the sort of domestic spying that the U.S. government has embraced with such gusto over the past decade is that it requires collecting vast amounts of information that serves no purpose in keeping the nation safe.
“Intelligence, by its very nature, is information that you can do something with or about,” observes Angelo Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. “It is not about reveling in secrets. Trying to learn about secrets apart from plans for action amounts to voyeurism.”
The counterintelligence program John and Bonnie Raines helped expose decades ago – a program that involved domestic spying and also theft, disinformation and blackmail – is an example of voyeuristic government run amok. That’s not to say the government had no legitimate reason to worry about New Left radicals – the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers were criminals and terrorists, after all. But the crimes of a few did not warrant violating the rights of the many.
Comparing the Raineses’ caper to Edward Snowden’s crimes, however, does little to serve the cause of the truth. What Snowden did was orders of magnitude worse.
Here’s the difference: Snowden didn’t simply expose domestic spying. He revealed to America’s enemies vital secrets – a vast and undifferentiated trove of data that one intelligence veteran called “the keys to the kingdom” – and fled to Russia by way of Communist China.
Snowden’s theft compromised not just a controversial and constitutionally dubious intelligence-gathering program. It also undermined perfectly legitimate spying. Let’s not be naive. This “whistleblower” did great damage in the name of democracy and freedom.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Website: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.