Small World: Solo performances

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

If you didn’t know it before, you understand it now: The power of a single individual, acting alone, can decisively influence the behavior of the world’s strongest government.

Edward J. Snowden taught us our most recent lesson in political science by, according to a top intelligence official, inflicting “great harm” on our national security.

A quiet, withdrawn computer nerd, Snowden was inspired not by some fanatical, divinely ordained, violence-relishing movement, but by his conservative belief in the American Constitution (especially the Fourth Amendment). Public debate, informed by previously hidden facts and a government responsive to the will of its people were, he said, what drove him to leak super sensitive documents. In consequence, elaborate plans were ruined, untold treasure was lost and the perfidy of Washington was exposed. But no lives were ended — at least, not yet.

Snowden acted in the tradition of past big-time leakers, Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning — men who saw our government behaving badly (or, more exactly, not in accord with their opinions). They acted without the guidance of some dominating figure — except maybe Thomas Jefferson. Ellsworth and Snowden’s work has been abetted by major organs of the media. Manning is standing trial with support only from dissident media outlets although much of the press has put his Wikileaks to use on page one. The initiatives of the three men has/will change the course of government policies

Now for a moment, let me jump to the other side of the barricades to present the perspective of the loyal and diligent public servant — as I once was. In my time in the State Department, it became almost impossible during a crisis to plan and to communicate under the constant threat that your cables of instructions to the field or memos of recommendations to superior officers would appear the next day on page one of the Washington Post.

If the foreign “foe” knows what you are up to, it becomes unlikely that your maneuver has much chance of succeeding. And your foreign friends will be dismayed by the lax handling of sensitive data. Foreign officials sometime succumb to the temptations of diplomats or bribes of intelligence agents to spill their beans; Americans are led to betray secrets by convictions and strong egos.

The leaker is not, of course, the only solitary saboteur of policy. Violence is a more dramatic device for grabbing the public’s attention and affecting policy. The most recent incident of that variety was the Boston massacre in which two brothers, unhappy in their lives in the United States and weakly inspired by anti-Russian terror gangs in their home country, taught themselves how to manufacture bombs, planned where to plant them and envisioned more of the same — all by themselves. No terror cell, apparently, stood behind them to guide and help.

Aggrieved youth, acting alone — or virtually so — have also seized headlines with acts of violence in England, France and Afghanistan.

This is not to say that groups like al Qaeda don’t count; they do. It does mean that the task of preventing or blocking terror plots has become infinitely more difficult. Spending upwards of $80 billion on a multitude of intelligence agencies — as the United States does — seems to be aiming at — and missing — the solitary, determined actor. We worry and pontificate about Islamic terrorists; we should spare a wrinkle on our collective brow for the aggrieved and alienated loner.

If we put into the same basket of “terrorists” those distraught gunners who have ended more American lives in recent years than certified terrorists, we would have quite a different problem. The killing of innocents in Newtown, Santa Monica and Colorado were, I submit, acts of terror. We also need to pay attention to lonely guys like those gunners who are increasingly disrupting our lives. Early background checks might help identify those gunners.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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