By Lee H. Hamilton
A democracy needs intelligence agencies. It needs to know what’s happening in the world to keep the nation prepared and secure. And if intelligence work is going to be effective, much of it must be done in secret.
But that’s if it’s 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 there is a limit to how much secrecy 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 media outlets are indispensable conveyors of this information.
Edward Snowden’s revelations to the press about the National Security Agency and its vast efforts to monitor communications are a case in point. Whether Snowden is a hero or a criminal in your book, there’s no question that because of him, we know far more about the unprecedented surveillance our government has been carrying out.
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 the only way to hold government accountable for uses of its power and to allow us to act as responsible citizens.
I don’t want to whitewash what’s happening in the media right now. 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.
This is worrisome, because we face real challenges in constraining the reach of government into our lives. Its powers of monitoring and surveillance are astonishing. It is classifying information wholesale, vigorously seeking to prosecute leaks, and 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 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 was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.