Some years ago I was doing research for a book about domestic CIA activities (significant since the CIA charter forbids the Agency from conducting operations inside the U.S.), and I had the opportunity to speak with a retired, but once very important, CIA contract officer. He told me that at one point in his career, he was approached by the Savak, the secret police under the Shah of Iran, whose ruthlessness is exceeded only by the current Iranian secret police.
The man with whom I spoke - let's call him Burt - was a well-known electronic surveillance expert, who had made his name by bugging the Ho Chi Mihn Trail during the Vietnam war. One of the ingenious ideas that Burt came up with was to disguise miniature microphones as insects and seed the Trail with them. Lyndon Johnson had said, with typical color, that he "wanted to hear the Vietcong pissing." Burt managed to accomplish this for him.
Burt met with a high-ranking Savak officer who told him that there were two groups within Iran the government wanted bugged. One, he said, was the Iranian Air Force officer corps, within which they believed there was a plot to overthrow the Shah. Since their leadership was localized on an air base near Teheran, Burt assured them that it would be no problem. He could tap all of the phone lines at the base, and record every call made from or to it. The Savak man was pleased.
"Who's the other group?" Burt then asked.
To which the Savak man replied, "Everybody else."
The Savak wanted the central phone exchange in Teheran bugged, so that they could monitor every phone conversation within the country. Burt told me that he was surprised by the request; but he assured the Savak officer that it could be done. And, according to Burt, it was done. Every phone call in Iran during the last years of the reign of the Shah was recorded, and the tapes turned over to the malicious, murderous secret police. Of course, the Shah was deposed despite (or perhaps because of ) this and forced into exile, and a new era of medieval darkness and brutality overwhelmed Iran. But that is another story.
Now, in the past few days, we have learned that the National Security Agency, tasked with protecting the security of the United States, has been secretly acquiring records of virtually every cell phone call made in the U.S., and perhaps every email sent as well. It is Burt's Savak commission on a much larger and more pervasive scale, and it is being done in this nation by our government, in the name of our own safety. The operation is, of course, stunning in the extent of its intrusiveness. It is, I think, the most egregious assault on American liberty, and certainly on American privacy, in the history of the nation.
Edward Snowden, the young man who alerted us to the massive clandestine violation of our privacy known as the Prism program, is now living in exile, and will shortly be prosecuted for his actions. This, too, we have seen before. I am old enough to remember Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which made it clear to one and all that America had been dragged into the morass in Vietnam under entirely fraudulent circumstances. That revelation was one of the triggers of my own opposition to the war.
Ellsberg was persecuted and prosecuted by the Nixon administration with characteristic venom. If Nixon imagined that he had enemies everywhere, in Ellsberg he could point a finger at a real, not an imaginary one. And so he and his thugs went after Ellsberg, even going so far as to stage a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, in order to steal private medical records that could be used to denounce the leaker as a lunatic. That was a very dark time in our nation's history; part of the nightmare landscape of Watergate.
But the fact remains that both Ellsberg and Snowden were simply telling the American public something we needed to know, and that the government would not tell us. What has surprised and troubled me most about this incident, however, is not the surveillance itself, since I suppose we ought to have suspected it and seen it coming. As our government grows ever larger, more secretive and more imperious, what is to stop it from snooping on anyone (although the idea that it was snooping on everyone is a bit surprising). No, what troubles me now as the story unfolds is the reaction of both leading political figures and the public in general.
Many prominent politicians, including the president and members of Congress, are actually defending the NSA program. No less a figure than our own Senator Diane Feinstein, a liberal relic of another era of politics and hairstyle, has insisted that the program is both necessary and legitimate. And polls seem to indicate that the majority of the public do not seriously object to having their phone records and emails confiscated in secret by the federal government, as long as it is being done "to keep us safe."
The truth they seem to be missing is this: What is the point of securing the safety of a society by altering its fundamental principles? If we now submit to such pervasive government violation of our rights in response to the threats of the terrorists, then have we not admitted that the terrorists have won? To put it simply: If the terrorists can force us to stop behaving like Americans, then they have already beaten us.
Under any circumstances, and notwithstanding any argument about national security, the Prism program is an outrage against our rights and our privacy, and a chilling lesson about the dangers of a government grown out of control. Yet, much of the media remains subdued in its coverage and evaluation of it. Why should this be so? The answer, as it usually does, lies in the politics of the matter. Had this program been revealed under a Republican administration, there would have been a media meltdown such as we have not seen since Watergate. But the media by and large cheer-leads for the Obama administration, and, of course, he is the first black president, and so, despite the fact that this scandal touches the lives of every American, even beyond the reach of the IRS scandal, the media mutes itself, for fear that it might taint, or even threaten their favorite son.
However, in my view, this matter is so serious in its scope and its implications that it rises far above the quotidian concerns of mere politics. We are all being targeted now, my fellow citizens - not just conservative groups. The other day, a Hollywood celebrity announced that she was not bothered by the targeting of the Tea Party; in fact, she was pleased because she did not like the Tea Party. By a coincidence, this celebrity is Jewish, and I could not help but wonder, as I listened to her rattle on: When will she learn? There were those once who were not bothered when government targeted Jews, because they did not like Jews; nor were they bothered when it targeted homosexuals, because they were uncomfortable with homosexuals; and neither did they object when government targeted the retarded and mentally ill, and gypsies and foreigners. Only when the government targeted them did they awake to the danger, and by then it was too late.
Well, now Edward Snowden has revealed that the government has targeted all of us, and we had better wake up to the fact that we may be very close to it being too late already.