“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” said Secretary of State Henry Stimson of his 1929 decision to shut down “The Black Chamber” that decoded the secret messages of foreign powers.
“This means war!” said FDR, after reading the intercepted instructions from Tokyo to its diplomats the night of Dec. 6, 1941.
Roosevelt’s secretary of war? Henry Stimson.
Times change, and they change us.
The CIA was created in 1947; the National Security Agency in 1952, with its headquarters at Ft. Meade in Maryland. This writer’s late brother was stationed at Meade doing “photo interpretation’’ in the years the CIA’s Gary Powers, flying U-2s at 70,000 feet above Mother Russia, was providing the agency with some interesting photographs.
This last week, through security leaks, we learned that the NSA has access to the phone records of Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. Of every call made to, from or in the U.S., NSA can determine what phone the call came from, which phone it went to, and how long the conversation lasted.
While NSA cannot recapture the contents of calls, it can use this information to select phones to tap for future recording and listening.
Through its PRISM program, the NSA can acquire access, via servers such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and AOL, to all emails sent, received and presumably deleted or spammed. And if the NSA can persuade a secret court that it has to know the contents of past, present or future emails, it can be accorded that right.
Our ability to intercept and read communications of foreigners and foreign governments seems almost limitless. In the Nixon years, Jack Anderson reported that we were intercepting the conversations of Kremlin leaders in their limos, and listening in on Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev. Our capacity today is surely orders of magnitude greater.
Last week, we also learned that Barack Obama, by Presidential Policy Directive 20, has tasked our government to prepare for both defensive and offensive cyberwarfare to enable us to attack whatever depends on the Internet anywhere in the world.
Lately, the U.S. and Israel planted a Stuxnet worm that crippled scores of centrifuges and disabled Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz. If we can do this in Iran, can we not do the same to nuclear plants all over the world, creating two, three, a hundred Chernobyls and Fukushimas?
Is it too much to imagine that, one day, if not already, the United States will be able to cyber-sabotage the power plants, electrical grids and communications systems of any country on earth?
With its ability to locate and listen in to terrorists, to track by satellite and kill by drone, America has acquired an extraordinary ability to protect its people and prevent and punish terrorist attacks.
But was any of this really surprising? Were we all in the dark as to what the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon could do?
And as we think back on 9/11, of our doomed countrymen jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center, the dead and maimed at the Boston Marathon, will not most Americans say, “Thank the Lord we have this power, and God bless the men and women who are using it to defend us”?
While this power is extraordinary, it is still not of the same magnitude as the 50,000 nuclear weapons we had 50 years ago, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when war could have led to scores of millions of American dead.
Nevertheless, for a people whose proud boast is that our nation was conceived in freedom, this brave new world is sobering. Our own government has the power to intercept and listen to every phone call we make, to read every email we send or receive, to track us with cameras we cannot see, and to wage secret cyberwar against enemies real or perceived without a declaration of war.
Yet, we can no more uninvent the technology that enables our government to do this than we can uninvent the atom bomb. And rival powers like China are surely seeking the same capabilities.
Thomas Jefferson instructed us that “in questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
But, ultimately, what other option do we have than to place our confidence in those whom we have entrusted with this power?
Congress is not going to pass a law telling the NSA that it may not coordinate with AOL, Apple or Google to access information that might prevent a terrorist attack. And if a terrorist attack hits this country, and our security agencies say their hands were tied in trying to protect us, all bets would be off as to what intrusions upon their freedom Americans might accept.
In the end, we ourselves are going to have to strike the balance between freedom and security.
But the question lingers.
If Big Brother is our guardian angel now, could he become Lucifer?