The public debate that Washington supports and tries to prevent

Jay Rosen writes: Last week on his CNN program Piers Morgan had just about finished a little speech on how you can’t have any bloke with a security clearance spewing classified information “on a whim” when James Risen, national security reporter for the New York Times, interrupted him: which document that’s come out don’t you want to talk about? Meaning: which of the things we’ve learned from Edward Snowden would you, as a journalist, prefer not to know? Which part of the surveillance story that’s come to light should have remained in darkness?

It was a good question. Piers Morgan did not have much of a reply.

When, on the same program, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker said that public discussion about previously classified materials was “a good thing” but he still thought Edward Snowden was a criminal, Risen interrupted: “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if it wasn’t for him,” he said. “That’s the thing I don’t understand about the climate in Washington these days, is that people want to have debates on television and elsewhere, but then you want to throw the people who start the debates in jail.”

It was a sharp observation. Jeffery Toobin didn’t have much of a reply.

Ever since The Guardian began to publish its revelations from the files of Edward Snowden, I have been trying to frame the unanswered question that drives my own interest in the subject.

Disclosure: I am not pro-Snowden or anti-Snowden, because to put it that way unnecessarily personalizes the issue. I am not “for” the National Security Agency or against it. As a U.S. citizen I am implicated in what the NSA does, and I want it to succeed in discovering those who would harm us. My concern, as a writer and journalism professor, is with another fight: the one for public knowledge, for sunlight, for the facts to come out so we know what’s going on. I am primarily interested in the journalism that Edward Snowden has set in motion, and the gains in public knowledge that have resulted from his actions, which I have called the Snowden effect.

The question that bothers me most can be put this way:

Can there even be an informed public and consent-of-the-governed for decisions about electronic surveillance, or have we put those principles aside so that the state can have its freedom to maneuver?

I call it unanswered but it’s more than that. It’s like we can’t face it, so we choose not to frame it that way. The question is less unaddressed than it is repressed by a political system that can’t handle the weight of what it’s done. But now that system is being forced to face what happened while it wasn’t looking — at itself. [Continue reading…]

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