Sorry, Clapper, You Lied To Us

I’ve long been ambivalent about the NSA’s massive spying program. In many ways, I think it is one of the least objectionable of various counter-terrorism measures. It doesn’t require us to invade and occupy other countries, capture or kill innocent civilians, torture prisoners, or engage in endless melodramas with men like Karzai. The trouble is: such a program relies to a great extent on trust and consent in a democracy, and our government has made both close to impossible.

They lied to us, to put it bluntly. James Clapper lied directly to the Congress. And he keeps lying. Does anyone believe for a second his new excuse for brazenly deceiving the public he is supposed to serve? He’s all contrite now and claiming that the massive NSA program should have been disclosed early on after 9/11. Fine. But his credibility is effectively over. If an official has lied directly to the public before, he can do so again. And, as Ed Morrissey notes,

Clapper still defends the 215 program as both constitutional and effective, even though the administration’s own select panel concluded the opposite on both points after its investigation. Another group reached the same conclusion about the effectiveness of the 215 program last month.

The only reason Clapper is still in his job is because the president wants him there. No other conceivable defense is possible.

And the obloquy directed at Snowden and, to a lesser extent, the journalists who aided him, is thereby rendered moot. No one can deny that Snowden exposed something our democracy needs to know about, as Clapper now acknowledges. That makes it a text-book case of whistle-blowing, however unwisely Snowden has acted since. And that’s why the journalistic community, despite misgivings, has rightly rallied behind Greenwald, Poitras, MacAskill and Gellman who helped break the stories. The Polk Award is a big deal – and Pulitzers may follow.

I guess what I’m saying is that whatever the ethical questions about the leak of highly classified material, the US government has behaved so mendaciously, secretly and covertly that the question about Snowden is basically over. You can try to smear him and others. But you can no longer deny that they exposed government lies about matters of serious constitutional import.