- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Matt Pottinger
Best Defense lack of privacy correspondent
If we are to follow the policies implied by the U.S. government’s handling of the Director Petraeus and General Allen cases, here’s what we should do: Open up the personal email accounts of all 2.3 million U.S. military service members to the FBI and the Pentagon and let them have at it.
Just think of the benefits: We could complete the Afghanistan drawdown overnight because 99 percent of our troops would be sidelined by investigations into "potentially inappropriate" communications. We wouldn’t have to keep clarifying the nuances of "rebalancing" versus "pivoting" toward Asia anymore — all our ships would be stuck in port while sailors are queried about sending "flirtatious" messages. And we could avoid the fiscal cliff by laying off service members who, at some point in their lives, typed words that someone, somewhere, construed as "intimidating."
In all seriousness, the aspect of the Petraeus and Allen investigations that should most disturb Americans is our government’s invasion of citizens’ private email accounts on the thinnest of pretexts, its reading of every last message, and its sharing of the most lurid snippets — regardless of their irrelevance — with members of Congress and unnamed officials who, in turn, share context-free summaries with the press.
These developments give me a grudging respect for the KGB. At least it had to expend real energy gathering the information it used to embarrass, compromise, and incriminate the citizens it spied on. U.S. investigators have it much easier. They have access to dossiers every bit as juicy as anything the Stasi ever compiled, but they hardly have to lift a finger to get them. Americans now compile their own dossiers in the form of email archives, social media accounts, phone and text-message logs, online medical records, and geo-location trails left by their smartphones. The deterrence of shoe leather? Not any more. All that investigators have to do is serve a subpoena on Facebook or Google or AT&T to get minute-by-minute records of the last decade or so of our lives. (Most Americans are probably unaware that investigators usually don’t need warrants to read citizens’ emails. Or to access our location data.).
One wonders how America’s most important general, George Washington, would have performed for the country if his private correspondences had been read and spread by government agents and press back then. In 1758, while he was engaged to marry Martha, George wrote at least two love letters to Sally Fairfax, the wife of one of his longtime friends. To this day, historians debate the nature of George and Sally’s relationship. There is no evidence the two ever slept together, but the letters surely would have created a scandal if they’d come to light during the American revolution. At best, they would have caused a serious distraction for the embattled general and his underdog army at a time when distractions could have meant defeat.
Washington understood as well as anyone the necessity of private words staying private. He knew that the fate of a new republic — and not just his ego — depended on his sustaining a good public image. After his retirement, he spent years censoring his letters of material that might undermine that goal. He even had his wife Martha burn their letters to one another after his death.
That option doesn’t exist today. There’s no furnace to pitch our emails into, no delete key that can erase our indelible digital scribblings. Numerous backup servers don’t permit it. The most we can expect and demand is a government that helps protect our privacy rather than obliterate it.
Matt Pottinger served as an active-duty Marine from 2005-2010. He runs a small business in New York.