Nick Davies at The Guardian has an interesting article challenging those (including some competing UK newspapers) who have been arguing that it's somehow inappropriate for journalists to make the decision about whether or not Snowden's leaked documents can be revealed
without revealing sensitive information that puts lives in danger. We've seen similar claims elsewhere, including in our comments, where some insist that it's preposterous to think that anyone other than the intelligence community can know for certain whether or not the documents are sensitive. Davies, however, makes the strong case that the government has a long and sordid history of hiding behind these kinds of claims to disguise highly questionable activity -- and, instead, it's the power of the press that is necessary to keep them honest.
The official answer is that we should trust the security agencies themselves. Over the past 35 years, I've worked with a clutch of whistleblowers from those agencies, and they've all shared one underlying theme – that behind the screen of official secrecy, they had seen rules being bent and/or broken in a way which precisely suggested that the agencies should not be trusted. Cathy Massiter and Robin Robison, for example, described respectively MI5 and GCHQ pursuing politically motivated projects to spy on peace activists and trade unionists. Peter Wright told of MI5 illegally burgling its way across London "while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way". David Shayler exposed a plot both lawless and reckless by MI5 and MI6 to recruit al-Qaida supporters to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi.
All of this was known to their bosses. None of it should have been happening. But the agencies in whom we are invited to place our trust not only concealed it but without exception then attacked the whistleblowers who revealed it.
Davies also destroys the idea that politicians in charge of "oversight" can do an effective job:
Would we do better to trust the politicians who have oversight of the agencies? It's instructive to look back from our vantage point, post-Snowden, to consider what was happening only two years ago when the government attempted to introduce new legislation which came to be known as the snooper's charter. If the oversight politicians are as well-informed as they claim, they must have known that this was in part a cynical attempt to create retrospective legal cover for surveillance tools that were already secretly being used, but they said nothing. And when parliament refused to pass that law, clearly indicating that there was no democratic mandate for those tools, they still stayed silent.
Politicians fall easy victim to a political Stockholm syndrome which sees them abandon their role as representatives of the people in favour of becoming spokesmen for the spooks. It was there in the 1970s when the New Statesman bravely exposed security lapses and financial corruption in GCHQ, only to face a prosecution orchestrated by a Labour attorney general; there again with Jack Straw describing in his autobiography how MI5 had spied on him and his family since he was 15 but declaring that he was "neither surprised nor shocked – this was the world we lived in"; and there again, of course, in the foreign secretary William Hague's bland presumption that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" from the systems of mass surveillance exposed by Snowden.
These are all UK examples, of course. But we've seen the identical situation in the US as well. The over-classification problem in our government is well-documented and no one seems to want to fix it
. Furthermore, stories of intelligence community abuses of power are well-known throughout US history. As for political oversight, the litany of stories we've had concerning Rep. Mike Rogers tells a different story altogether. He's supposedly in charge of oversight, but comes from an intelligence background and has shown, repeatedly that his focus is not on oversight, but on running cover
to prevent real oversight of the intelligence community's actions.
Journalists may not be perfect, but they certainly have a much better track record than either governments or politicians in making these kinds of determinations.