Editor’s note: the following is an opinion piece by Richard Dudman. Dudman, who lives in Ellsworth, Maine, is a former chief Washington correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The Pulitzer and Polk committees had little choice, as most commentators say. They felt that they had to give their 2013 prizes for public service to the publications and reporters who broke one of the biggest stories of the year, the broad surveillance operations of the National Security Agency. But their decisions deserve second thoughts.
Consequences figure in the committees’ thinking, and the disclosures have brought beneficial consequences by most estimates. President Obama has reacted by ordering a restructuring of the surveillance systems to limit reported abuses. And the press and public have learned much about what the U.S. government has been doing in secret.
But some other consequences have been clearly harmful. Among them is the outrage in Germany, a prime ally and trading partner of the United States, over the N.S.A.’s gathering of electronic data from its ordinary citizens and spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said angrily that “snooping among friends, that just doesn’t work.”
The disclosures also have tipped off the terrorists that their emails and phone calls were being monitored. They have switched to other means of communication. Whether their new systems can be tapped is not and should not be publicly known.
The prizes, too, have brought harmful if unintended consequences. They have boosted the increasingly favorable reputation of Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, as a public spirited whistle blower rather than a treasonous violator of security laws and fugitive (temporarily in Russia) from U.S. criminal prosecution.
Above all, the prizes have practically put an end, for now, to the great debate that Mr. Obama called for, on privacy vs. security. Privacy has won, at least for the present. Among politicians, most of the media, and probably most of the public, transparency is seen as good and secrecy is seen as bad.
Yet secrecy continues to have an essential role in national security. So does surveillance, including mass monitoring of senders and recipients of communications. Such a program might have detected the 9/11 terrorists as they plotted to arm themselves with box cutters, board commercial planes and destroy the World Trade Center and hit other targets. Surveillance holds the possibility of detecting present and future terrorist plotters before they strike. Of course it must be carried out secretly.
Critics often think mistakenly that surveillance ought to target only people who are already under suspicion. Typically, a New York Times editorial published on June 10, 2013, asked, “Are calls and texts of ordinary Americans mined for patterns that might put innocent people under suspicion? Why is data from every phone call collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects off criminal activity?” That kind of thinking would rule out trying to ferret out terrorists still unknown and unsuspected, like the 9/11 gang before they struck.
Even some of the supposed surveillance abuses have another side to consider. Think about Chancellor Merkel’s complaint. Most big nations probably “snoop” on each other, to get necessary information not readily volunteered. But such operations are wisely kept secret. The harm is done when someone like Mr. Snowden violates his trust and spills the beans.
Another facet of the Pulitzer-Polk-N.S.A. puzzle also needs second thoughts: the question of whether the Guardian or the Washington Post should have published the stolen information. Most commentators reject the notion that that they were accomplices or facilitators of an illegal act. And yet, it seems clear that Mr. Snowden could not have carried out his plan without getting the stolen secrets published. Publication was essential to his whistle-blowing scheme.
Was there a difference between publishing parts of Mr. Snowden’s trove and the Pentagon Papers? Yes, first because the Snowden stuff is current, while the Pentagon Papers were past history. Also, Mr. Snowden faces criminal prosecution, while charges against Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers, were dismissed. Finally, the Pentagon Papers helped Americans understand why the long war in Vietnam was heading toward the first American military defeat, while the value of public knowledge of the surveillance operations is highly debatable.
Yes, the prizes had to be awarded, but we may live to regret them.