By David K. Shipler
Perhaps it’s premature to say, but it seems likely that Edward Snowden’s enormous sacrifice will be in vain. In the pattern of recent leakers and whistle-blowers before him, his damaged life will have no compensation in the form of revised policy. Nothing will change. So it has been with the likes of Thomas Tamm, Thomas Drake, and others who didn’t go to jail as Army private Bradley Manning will, but suffered the destruction of their careers for the sake of informing an American public that basically didn’t care about the wrongdoing they exposed.
This is the phenomenon of the “frozen scandal,” as Mark Danner described it brilliantly in 2008, in The New York Review of Books:
“We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. In retrospect those events unfold with the clear logic of utopian dream. First, revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration. Then, investigation: not just by the press—for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. Investigation, that is, by the polity, working through its institutions to construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept. And finally expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.
“It is a myth, of course, but a lovely one. It relies on images of power, the press, and the people that fit our collective longing—for justice, for heroism, and for ultimate goodness residing in a people who, once alerted to wrongdoing, insist on its rectification. The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people’s ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist—well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then—so the myth implies—is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. Information, together with the people’s natural sense of the good and the right, leads to expiation and society’s inevitable cleansing.”
It aches to read these lines from Danner, for no cherished myth dies painlessly. And society’s cherished myths are not merely lies. They can be useful dreams, high standards that set powerful goals to close the gaps between the wishes and the realities. Take, for example, the myth that anyone who works hard in America will prosper. Only people on the extreme right can look around the country and believe it to be true, yet the belief has power for all of us, “the truth of the power of the wish,” as Richard Wright observed. We yearn to make it true, and that’s to the good.
Now comes the myth that American society is self-correcting. This, too, drives us beyond complacency. When it is activated, it mobilizes our dissatisfaction and empowers us to alter the future. It would be quite wrong to write this one off, for we have shown how self-correcting we can be—at times, but not at all times. Look at today’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and, in doing so, recognizing gays and lesbians and transsexuals as possessing the right to equal protection under the law. Rarely have the country’s attitudes on a social issue enjoyed such rapid transformation.
That faith in our capacity to do better, to be better, pervaded the Washington Mall a half century ago in August. I was there as a college student, unseasoned in the world, skeptical but not cynical, caught up in the sheer friendliness of the people in the gathered throng, and swept by their devotion to the proposition of a different future. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” that day, and his entire strategy, was based on his fundamental confidence in America’s ability to be self-correcting.
Out of that day, and that strategy and that faith, came the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most successful civil rights laws in the nation’s history, now just paralyzed by five Supreme Court justices with little sense of how racism and politics work together, and how vigilant the nation must be against bigotry that constantly mutates to survive.
The timing is fitting, in a cruel way. The Court’s decision strikes down the formula that has required most Southern states and certain localities elsewhere to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department for changes in their election procedures—a requirement that has exposed how discrimination uses canny subterfuge as a tool. It comes 50 years after King proclaimed, from the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream.” It comes as Americans have generally reacted with yawns and applause to the news that their military (through its National Security Agency) is collecting all their phone and e-mail contact information, including subject lines and cell phone locations. (In America’s constitutional democracy, as opposed to the autocracies of banana republics, the military is not supposed to be spying domestically; when such activities were revealed in the 1970s, they provoked outrage and Congressional action.).
Officials who dare can only talk, as Thomas Tamm did when, as a Justice Department lawyer in 2004, he went to a pay phone in a subway station and called Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times to tip him off to the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program. Lichtblau and James Risen of The Times made a splash with the story and won a Pulitzer, but Tamm, threatened with prosecution, was subjected to a traumatic search of his house and driven out of the Justice Department. He now sits in a rented office near the courthouse in Rockville, MD, eking out a living as an appointed defense attorney and wondering if he can afford to keep his home.
Furthermore, the sweeping surveillance he helped expose did not end; it was effectively legalized by Congress in 2008 and, as we have learned from Snowden, remains expansive.
Thomas Drake, a senior NSA official, went to Congress and the Defense Department’s Inspector General to report wasteful spending and rights violations by the NSA, and as a last resort contacted a Baltimore Sun reporter, Siobhan Gorman, who wrote illuminating pieces that helped elevate her to national security correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. Drake, on the other hand, was charged maliciously under the Espionage Act in a case that collapsed for lack of evidence: in fact, he had not disclosed anything classified. To get out from under a constant threat, he pleaded guilty to a mild misdemeanor—“exceeding the authorized use of a government computer”—for which he was sentenced to community service taking oral histories from combat veterans. His revelations had no discernible impact on the NSA’s behavior, and Drake now works at an Apple store in Bethesda, MD.
Knowledge may be power, but only if the American people and their elected representatives pick it up and put it to good use. Otherwise, they deal a blow to the hopeful, essential myth of self-correction.