My Take

Why whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden must use drastic measures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 8:36am

When the FBI was formally launched in the 1930s, its brief was to fight crime. But under J. Edgar Hoover it stretched much further beyond that until finally a US Senate investigation was ordered in 1975 to rein in its powers.

The group of people who broke into an FBI office in 1971, stole its files and alerted the media about the agency's activities has now identified themselves and recounted how they did it and why.

Unlike Edward Snowden, who last year leaked details of the National Security Agency's spy programmes, none of these eight people had access to the files - they had to break in to get them. What comes through from their various media interviews is their sheer determination and drive. They were all activists but none of them firebrand as you might imagine - just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives.

A taxi driver had to take a locksmith correspondence course to learn how to break locks, while one couple decided to join despite fears for their family of three children. They even made arrangements with other family members to raise them if they were caught and jailed.

But what is eerily familiar is how the FBI reacted after the media started publishing the stolen files. The officials said the leaks were a threat to national security and the activities that were exposed were essential to maintain the social fabric of society. Officials put pressure on editors not to publish the documents, saying it would hurt the nation.

Hoover assigned nearly 200 agents to solve the crime but the group managed to remain safe and escaped what would have been pretty long jail sentences. Even more remarkably, they remained anonymous for more than three decades. The documents they gave the press finally led to the Senate probe which revealed the extent to which FBI bosses had expanded their activities, becoming a threat even to the White House. Despite that, there are some who still consider the group traitors, for hurting the government which was at war in Vietnam at the time.

Breaking into buildings and seizing property is what governments do to fight criminal activities, like drug dealing. It is permissible and necessary to stop such activities. Isn't that what this group of people did in 1971 and Edward Snowden did last year?