Story by Jesse Wright
At the beginning of this month, five burglars confessed to their crime. Normally such an event would not be the topic of a national news story, but these burglars were not confessing to dressing in black and taking electronic goods to be sold on the black market.
They were confessing to exposing decades of corruption and abuse of power by the United States government.
In 1971, long before Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, a group calling itself “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Pennsylvania office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and took off with nearly every document inside.
As reported by The New York Times article “Burglars Who Took on the FBI Abandon Shadows,” the group discovered that not only had the Bureau conducted massive warrantless spy campaigns on groups they deemed subversive, they were also using their power to harass and destroy the lives of such people under the Cointelpro, or counterintelligence program.
One of the most notorious incidences of this program was an anonymous letter the FBI sent to Martin Luther King Jr. in which they threatened to expose his extramarital affairs.
Keith Forsyth, one of the men who has finally come forward with his involvement with the burglary, said such drastic actions were the only way to get people to believe the misdeeds of the FBI.
Forsyth said in a New York Times article, “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”
Other than the fact that the statute of limitations had run out, one can speculate that the timing of Forsyth and the four other members of the “Commission” to identify themselves is an act to show support for others who have leaked government secrets in the past few years.
The most famous of these leakers is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed the NSA’s global surveillance programs. Among the revelations of Snowden’s leaks is the fact that the NSA has been listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of millions of Americans without the approval of a court or probable cause of a crime being committed.
To some, Snowden and the people of the “Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” are heroes who have blown the whistle on despicable government crimes.
To others, they are traitors who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for stealing and putting programs designed to keep Americans safe in jeopardy.
Greg Schiedler, a political science major at Iowa State Universitakes the latter view.
“I think what Snowden did was inappropriate,” Schiedler said. “If he believed that the NSA was abusing its power, he should have gone through the proper channels to try to fix the problem. Snowden is also a hypocrite because he is accusing the government of criminal behavior while at the same time committing crimes himself. Additionally, how can he accuse the U.S. of anything when he has chosen to seek asylum in Russia, a country far more repressive than America?”
Drake University electronic media professor Todd Evans has a more mixed approach to the actions of Snowden.
“Snowden’s actions have to be put into context before any solid conclusions can be reached,” Evans said. “While there are aspects of Snowden’s actions which may technically be considered criminal, we must also never be afraid of whistle blowers who uncover legitimate instances of wrongdoing by an organization. ‘Do no harm’ is one of the main tenants of journalism, but one could argue that Snowden’s revelations helped people by showing them their government was involved in a massive illegal spying operation.
I don’t believe that it was Snowden’s intention to harm anyone or that his actions were taken for personal gain.”
Another aspect of these cases is the ethics of journalists in the handling of sensitive government documents.
WHO TV anchor and political director Dave Price said, “Reporters will always try to get as much information they can in order to obtain a story and there will always be a fight between governments and the press over what the public should know.”
Whatever one thinks about the actions of Edward Snowden or groups like “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI,” there is no doubt that the actions taken by such people will be debated for years to come. The issues of freedom versus security or the rights of the press versus the national security are important issues, and the delicate balancing act which attempts to achieve all four at once is unlikely to be mastered anytime soon.