by Jules Witcover

We now know more than ever before that American society leaks like a sieve. Supposedly secret information pours out from government, from its hired contractors, from Congress, from giant corporations, from political parties, all in the effort to gain advantage -- military, industrial, political -- in a highly competitive world.

The current frenzy over an insider whistleblower's revelations of the scope of U.S. intelligence gathering has both jolted and titillated the American public. It's happened despite official assurances that only the frequency and course of electronic communications are being tracked, not the content.

The sense pervades that we're going through a reprise and updating of George Orwell's "1984" in which Big Brother may actually be watching you. The secret-keepers defend their actions in the name of national security amid warnings of the leakers that the sky is falling.

The president somewhat petulantly noted that adequate public safeguards exist in the Foreign Intelligence Security Act and its special court that screens and blesses wireless spying it finds to be in the national interest. He insists that all members of Congress have known about it if they have taken the trouble to ask. But many say they have not because they didn't know there was something to ask about.

The whole furor comes on the heels of the leaked or otherwise disclosed snooping by Internal Revenue Service monitors of tax-exemption applicants of tea party and other conservative groups, and by the Justice Department into the records of Associated Press reporters. This can be serious business, but it is reduced to Inspector Clouseau silliness in comparison with the National Security Agency leaks.

President Obama deplores all of them, thus allying himself with the same congressional Republicans who have been beating his brains out politically ever since he entered the Oval Office. At the same time, he raises the hackles of Democratic liberals who canonize the leakers as self-sacrificing patriots.

With Congress already awash in investigations bearing more than a sniff of political motivation, more hearings are underway or on tap into the NSA imbroglio. At the same time, demands are heard for swift retaliatory action against the spill-all government contractor who tapped the British Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post as high-profile vehicles for getting his story out.

Meanwhile, the public chooses up sides on who is a hero and who is a traitor, and whether these newspapers have been willing accomplices in a national-security breech or staunch defenders of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. In any event, the confessed leaker, former CIA employee Edward Snowden, has himself come in out of the cold, while apparently on the lam in quest of sanctuary somewhere.

In all this, obvious questions need honest answers from the Obama administration on some critical matters: How much is all this secret electronic sleuthing costing the American taxpayer, for what return? Has the runaway practice of using outside contractors gotten way out of hand, vastly complicating the task of screening them for their own reliability and trustworthiness to be involved in such super-secret stuff? Where does Obama come down on the civil liberties aspect of the debate?

He already has been accused in the national-security area of being no more than a willing enabler of the policies of his predecessor in pursuing George W. Bush's "war on terror" while continuing to masquerade as a champion of America's free press. The news media collectively in turn has become notably harsher toward him in his second term.

In all, Obama finds himself consumed once more by a divisive and distracting debate. It compounds his efforts to pivot to his original agenda of economic repair at home and a more dependable path of multilateral response to world crises abroad. On both fronts, circumstances as well as partisan political opposition appear unwilling to give him breathing room.

In his fifth year in the presidency, the only Rose Garden promised him is the one outside his White House office, where he seems repeatedly obliged to explain why his 2008 pledge to change the way Washington works remains unfulfilled.




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Article: Copyright ©, Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Leakmania: Edward Snowden