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Hooray for snooping

by Paul Greenberg | October 23, 2013 at 4:31 a.m.

It happened years ago in Calgary, Alberta, where the National Conference of Editorial Writers was holding its convention that year. Was it in the ’70s or ’80s, and does it matter? Much has changed since then, and not for the better. The organization started as a simple meeting of a few editorial writers to shoot the bull, but by now it’s cast its web wider and vaguer, becoming the Association of Opinion Journalists, whatever “opinion journalists” are. Anybody who ever started his own blog or wrote a letter to the editor?

The disappearance of the old-fashioned editorial writer has pretty much paralleled the disappearance of the old-fashioned newspaper. It is not a change for the better.

Our annual meetings ought to be as personal and idiosyncratic as any other anarchists’ convention. Ideally, they would be as gossipy as tea in the servants’ quarters after our masters have turned in for the night and left the household in peace.

But even by the time we met at Calgary, editorial writers were putting on airs-just as the once baronial publishers who used to own American newspapers, generation after generation, were losing theirs. Once great newspapers began going public or just going under, their editorial voices growing blander and blander till they weren’t there at all.

We should have known what was going to happen once we started following parliamentary procedure and holding plenary sessions and adopting sonorous resolutions by the ream.But we just sat there quietly, listening to professors of journalism address the State of the Profession-as if our ragtag bunch were one, and as much a conspiracy against the laity as any other. That year at Calgary, one solemn resolution proposed that we stopped talking to the CIA, since a number of journalists abroad had been assassinated on the pretext that we were all CIA agents, capitalist spies, tools of imperialism, and, well, you know the rest. As if the killers were so lacking in imagination they couldn’t come up with some other excuse to do away with us if they hadn’t invented this one.

So there we were in all too solemn convention assembled, First Amendment or no, debating whether we should gag ourselves. I dissented, being an American. And unaccustomed to being told whom I could talk to or not talk to. Memory grows furtive, but I believe the resolution was defeated. That it was ever considered was disgraceful enough.

These days, the National Security Agency has succeeded the CIA as the villain du jour in the more respectable reaches of the Fourth Estate.

It seems the Boardwalk-and-Park Avenue sector of the press is shocked-shocked!-to discover that our snoops have discovered megadata, and have been keeping tabs on phone calls and emails by the millions all around the globe, noting their time, origin, and duration. A court’s permission is still needed to peek at the contents of such messages. But that’s not enough for the New York Times-ish editorialists among us, who profess themselves horrified when they discover that our national security agency should be so interested in protecting our national security.

It occurs to some of us that, if the CIA and FBI and NSA had been allowed to talk even to each other before September 11, 2001, that date might not have become another one that will live in infamy. If only Big Data could have been mined back then the way it is now, the country might have been a lot safer. Along with the thousands of innocent victims who found themselves in the Twin Towers that fateful day. And others rushing to their rescue as firefighters and cops. And the troops who were stationed at the Pentagon as airliners were turned into flaming engines of destruction, their passengers and crews wiped out. Including those who, like the ones aboard valiant United 93, were the first to mount a counter-attack against the terrorists in this still continuing war.

How soon we forget. Now our chattering class can be counted on to object, vociferously and repetitiously, to snooping on our enemies. It’s an old reflex, an echo of the genteel distaste embodied in Henry Stimson’s remark when, as secretary of state in 1929, he disbanded the department’s code-breaking office because “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

But even Mr. Stimson, a gentleman of the old school, learned better as the threats to the nation’s security mounted in the ’30s, and changed his mind. It remains to be seen whether our current crop of respectables are as educable.

By now dozens of New York Times editorials have denounced the use of mega-data merely to protect the country. To hear the Times tell it, that new kind of intelligence-gathering isn’t just a prudent precaution. It’s part of the process of creating a “national surveillance state.” We’re all supposed to shudder at that point. Those of us without so finely developed a suicidal instinct can only respond: Surveil Away!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the next outraged editorial in the no longer so good or gray New York Times: the Times itself realized it had been the object of “a malicious external attack,” to quote one of its executuves. An attack not by the CIA or NSA or FBI but by sophisticated hackers who called themselves the Syrian Electronic Army, a euphemism for what appearsed to be an operation of Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless regime in Syria.

Months before that computerized attack, the Times had complained that hackers had stolen the corporate passwords of all its employees, gained access to 53 of its computers, and snuck into the email accounts of a couple of its reporters who cover China.

Suddenly the Times had use for the FBI, which it called in to investigate this wholesale breach of its electronic walls. It may have won a Pulitzer Prize or two for undermining national security itself by revealing how our snoops traced the communications and finances of terrorists, but this was different: Its own security had been compromised.

The rest of cyber-America will prove just as vulnerable if our intelligence agencies aren’t allowed to mine enough data to track and prevent such hacker invasions. But it may take a while before that realization filters down to the Times’ own editorial writers. There’s always got to be somebody who’s the last to catch on.


Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial, Pages 16 on 10/23/2013

Print Headline: Hooray for snooping


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