Imagine if American citizens never learned about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Imagine not knowing about the brutal treatment of terror suspects at United States government “black sites.” Or about the drone program that is expanding under President Obama, or the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
This is a world without leaks.
And a world without leaks — the secret government information slipped to the press — may be the direction we’re headed in. Since 9/11, leakers and whistle-blowers have become an increasingly endangered species.
But Sullivan backs off from saying the thorniest part: Some people who put themselves at great risk to protect our American ideal of freedom aren't fighting in foreign wars, but fighting against encroachments against civil liberties and transparency at home. Sometimes they're burglars, vandals, and thieves. Other times, they're willing to risk professional ruin, indeterminate jail time, or solitary confinement by refusing to testify about people's political opinions for federal investigators: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" or whether so-and-so is a "known anarchist."
Houston summarized his recommendations, including more funding for US spies to:
(1) monitor the international communication of US citizens; (2) intensify the electronic surveillance of domestic dissenters and selected establishments; (3) read the international mail of American citizens; (4) break into specified establishments and into homes of domestic dissenters; and, (5) intensify the surveillance of American college students.
Soon afterward, the NSA expanded its watch lists, the CIA ramped up its mail-opening and CHAOS operations directed against US citizen-activists (including women's rights and Black Panther advocates, as well as journalists), and the FBI lowered its minimum age for informers to 18 (the better to spy on college students and professors).
After Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974, the syndicated Washington columnist Joseph Kraft, who had been the subject of intense surveillance while he was at home and abroad, said: "We came a hell of a lot closer to a police state than I thought possible."
The crime that helped reverse this trend happened on March 8, 1971. Also from Manufacturing Hysteria:
As most of America watched the heavy-weight title fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali that evening, three or four individuals broek into the Media, Pennsylvania office of the FBI and made off with more than a thousand documents from the office's unlocked file cabinets. The raiders were part of a twenty-person team that called itself the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI.
That break-in was the only known action by the group; its members have never been publicly identified.
After the group broke into FBI offices and stole the documents, it strategically leaked them to journalists. And that's how the American people learned about COINTELPRO and that FBI agents "had been involved in assaults, wiretapping, and the burning of automobiles as they carried out security investigations."
The US attorney general, of course, said that divulging the documents could "endanger the lives or cause other serious harm to persons engaged in investigative activities on behalf of the United States."
But those revelations led to a massive political response. If not for that response and its (at least temporary) reform of how the FBI monitors political speech, our present might look a lot more grim.
So hooray for the patriotic burglars, whistleblowers, and non-cooperators. Sometimes it takes a crime—or a little jail time—to defend an American principle.