Who poses the greater threat to the United States: the spymasters and their “enormous power” or the leakers “who occasionally expose them?”
Add still another blow to Woodrow Wilson’s tottering historical reputation. As a World War I security measure, Wilson proposed the Espionage Act of 1917—he tried vainly to get press censorship into the law—and used it instead to suppress dissent, most notoriously against Eugene Debs, Socialist Party leader, imprisoned for giving anti-war speeches. With the rise of the national security state during and after World War II, succeeding administrations have persisted in using the act not so much to punish foreign agents but rather to go after protestors and leakers, most famously Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 for supplying the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Since 9/11, intelligence agencies have accrued even more power and have employed the act and other laws to pursue the likes of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, to ensnare journalists—Glenn Greenwald, James Risen, and Michael Hastings, among others—who convey classified information not to the enemy but to the public. Near the end of his well-written, tightly argued discussion of these and other cases, Gardner (Emeritus, History/Rutgers Univ.; Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare, 2013, etc.) declares that the intelligence community has become “the unacknowledged supreme master of the federal government.” By threatening aggressive investigatory journalism, by shielding government malpractice, by violating the separation of powers doctrine, intelligence agencies have done more, he writes, to undermine our democracy than to make us safe. Adding to Gardner’s credibility is his willingness to be as harsh on Barack Obama as on George W. Bush and his accommodation of such voices as Sean Wilentz, Michael Kinsley, and George Packer, all of whom have been critical of either the methods or character of the whistleblowers.
A worthwhile contribution to our ongoing national debate about the balance between national security and privacy and about the line between sedition and dissent.