There was no discussion, he says: Walter Pincus is one of the country’s most respected reporters.
Check that! Walter Pincus is one of the country’s only respected reporters. As a veteran of the intelligence beat, Pincus offered his thoughts about the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations in yesterday’s Washington Post.
Pincus’ piece was stuck on page A13, as his reports often were in the run-up to war in Iraq. In his reaction to Snowden’s disclosures, Pincus offers an intriguing portrait of our discussion-free world.
We are not expert on these matters, nor are we anything like it. But Pincus seemed to be asking why anyone was surprised by Snowden’s disclosures. In this passage, he described a disclosure in 2006:
PINCUS (6/11/13): Another piece of history:Same old same-old, Pincus seemed to be saying. He went on to recall another report by a major reporter in March of 2012:
Seven years ago, on May 5, 2006, USA Today disclosed that the NSA “has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth,” attributing that information to “people with direct knowledge of the arrangement.”
The newspaper continued: “The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans—most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.”
Sound familiar? How about this response, that same day, from President George W. Bush: “First, our intelligence activities strictly target al-Qaeda and their known affiliates. . . . Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat.”
PINCUS: On March 15, 2012, Wired magazine published a long article by James Bamford, who has written books about the NSA. Bamford described the agency’s new $2 billion Utah Data Center and its ability to “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.”The mainstream media ignored Bamford’s disclosure, Pincus says. Then, this week, the world went wild in response to Snowden’s disclosure.
He wrote that when the center is fully running at the end of this year, “stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’ ”
Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to Bamford’s disclosure, or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No.
Again, we aren’t expert on these matters—but Pincus certainly is. We thought he erred when he tried to explain the lack of reaction by the press in the past:
PINCUS (continuing directly): Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to Bamford’s disclosure, or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No.Why didn’t the mainstream press corps react to those reports in the past? “That’s because the American public at large is more accepting of the government’s involvement in their lives...than is Edward Snowden,” Pincus surmises.
That’s because the American public at large is more accepting of the government’s involvement in their lives—along with Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple—than is Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old who leaked the highly classified NSA documents. He appears to believe the public is unaware, and, as he told the Guardian, knowing “what’s happening, you [meaning the public] should decide whether we should be doing this.”
I believe the public has decided. I have never forgotten one thought in a lecture I heard at Yale University back in the early 1950s when Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) was carrying on his anti-communist witch hunt. Professor Harry R. Rudin declared that the two peoples most willing to trade civil liberties for personal security were the Germans and the Americans. Sixty-plus years later, I think the reaction to 9/11 that we still see proves again that Rudin was right.
It seems to us that Pincus is wrong. It seems to us that Pincus is trying to “explain” the normal state of affairs—and the normal state of affairs doesn’t need explanation.
Why no discussion in the past? People! As a general matter, our mainstream press corps no longer conducts discussions! The Snowden affair involves a dramatic international mystery chase. Perhaps that’s why it has sparked so much reaction.
But why would the mainstream press have discussed these topics in the past? The mainstream press corps discusses very few topics. The failure to conduct discussions is completely the norm by this point.
Our mainstream press corps stopped conducting real discussions long ago. Pincus, working hard at his craft, may not have noticed the shift in the culture.