Let’s start with the obvious: A democracy needs intelligence agencies. It needs to know what’s happening in the world — and understand the plans of allies and enemies — to keep the nation prepared and secure.
If intelligence work is going to be effective, much of it has to be done in secret. “National security” is not merely an excuse for keeping intelligence activity under wraps: often, the only way to protect our collective well-being is to pursue many national security activities, including intelligence-gathering, in the dark.
But that’s if they’re legitimately in the national interest. All too often, governments use secrecy to protect themselves politically or to shroud activities that, seen in the cold light of day, their citizens would reject. This is why secrecy in government can be dangerous, and should be subject to the checks and balances of our constitutional system.
However legitimate secrecy may be, though, there is a limit to how much a democracy can stand. As ordinary citizens, we need information about what our government is up to in order to make informed and discriminating choices about politicians and policies. Journalists and their media outlets are indispensable conveyors of this information. The work of the journalist, who often presses for a more open, accountable government, creates tensions with a government set upon guarding state secrets. But it’s a healthy, much-needed tension.
Which brings us to Edward Snowden’s revelations to the press about the National Security Agency and its vast efforts to monitor communications. Around Washington, Snowden is routinely excoriated, and he’s none too popular in the country at large, either. But whether he’s a hero or a criminal in your book, there’s no question that because of him, we know far more about the surveillance our government has been carrying out. The expansion of government power that the leaks reveal is without precedent in the modern era. Technology, along with the surveillance and monitoring it enables, has clearly outrun the policies to deal with it.
Although many commentators have raised questions about Snowden’s leaks, the journalists who have dug into the NSA files he provided are doing the job that democracy depends on them to do: getting information that details government actions and prompting a badly needed debate. It’s one of the most important ways to hold government accountable for the use of its power. Our ability to judge whether it acted appropriately or abusively and to act as responsible citizens is buttressed by journalists who are skilled at finding and keeping confidential sources, who know how to dig through copious records or amounts of data, who have learned how to build a story from a tip or a leak, and who are accurate, honest, rigorous and fair-minded.
Now, I don’t want to whitewash what’s happening in the media right now. There are plenty of worrisome trends. As a whole, media outlets are less interested than they used to be in accuracy, objectivity and solid coverage, and more interested in advocacy, persuasion and entertainment. Even at the largest papers, cutbacks have reined in their ability to cover the world and to launch expensive investigative work. The recent rise of alternatives — such as the non-profit ProPublica and the investigative reporting venture just announced by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — may go some distance toward recovering what’s been lost, but they’re also an acknowledgement that we have lost ground.
And we’ve done so precisely at a time when we face a real challenge in constraining the reach of government into our lives. Its powers of monitoring and surveillance are astonishing and are being used aggressively. It is classifying secret information wholesale, it is vigorously seeking to prosecute leaks, and it is trying to intimidate journalists: all of these are signs of a national security state that is determined to bulk up.
Congress is only now beginning to stir; until recently it has been a passive and willing participant in secrecy. At a moment like this, we have to depend more than ever on the curiosity, skill and determination of good reporters to spur the kind of debate we should be having as our society tries to strike the right balance between security and freedom.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Ohio as a member of the U.S. House for 34 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .