Sixty years ago, on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
The Rosenbergs, who lived in Manhattan, had been arrested in 1950, accused of passing classified military information to agents of the Soviet Union. The government charged that the pair had secured the secret data on nuclear weapons from Ethel’s brother, who worked at the Los Alamos atomic bomb project.
With the Cold War heating up along with the anti-communist climate fanned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, there was little public sympathy for the Rosenbergs. Many did believe, however, that their death sentences were too harsh. They were the first American civilians to be executed for espionage.
Today, espionage is of a different sort, with defendants not being accused of secretly passing classified information to an enemy nation, but of leaking secrets to the media or the Internet. In effect, the data becomes public information for anyone to see.
The latest case involves Edward Snowden, a former CIA technician and a systems employee for a government contractor. He provided documents to two newspapers that detailed the activity of American surveillance programs. The information revealed that the government was collecting huge amounts of data on American citizens through phone and Internet records.
The government considers the surveillance legal under laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act, which have been tweaked to justify snooping in attempts to prevent terrorism.
What Snowden did was to Americans and the rest of the world know that the government was actually and secretly doing what it was authorized to do. While most people were vaguely aware that the government was capable of spying on its own citizens, they really had no idea it was doing so to such an extent.
For his efforts, Snowden was charged with espionage and theft of government property. He had been hiding for weeks in Hong Kong, and now is looking to find a country to grant him asylum.
The case is a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, where its National Security Agency appears more like the Stasi of the former East Germany. In a world of technology, however, you do not need to plant informers in each neighborhood to eavesdrop on the words of its residents.
Norman Solomon, an author and founding director of Institute for Public Accuracy, rightly concludes that the government’s actions are a threat to democracy.
“The central issue is our dire shortage of democracy,’’ he wrote on his website. ``How can we have real consent of the governed when the government is entrenched with extreme secrecy, surveillance and contempt for privacy?
“The same government that continues to expand its invasive dragnet of surveillance, all over the United States and the rest of the world, is now asserting its prerogative to drag Snowden back to the USA from anywhere on the planet.’’
The Obama administration now has employed the Espionage Act in seven criminal cases in its crackdown on leaks of secrets. Unlike the Rosenbergs, Snowden all told is facing 30 years in prison rather than the death penalty.
While the government is trying to get Snowden returned to the U.S., it is prosecuting at military trial Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been jailed for three years for admitting that he sent hundreds of thousands of battlefield reports, diplomatic cables and other documents to Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy website.
Manning also is accused of aiding the enemy because of the nature of his leaks, while Snowden appears to have more popular support for the kind of information he made public.
Polls show that only little more than a majority go along with the government’s plan to prosecute, and that young people, Tea Party supporters and liberals believe Snowden’s leaks provided a public service by exposing government spying on American citizens.
Indeed, it seems like many American have a ho-hum attitude toward the Snowden case. It is as if they can live with the government’s spying as long as they are assured it helps keep them safe from terrorist threats.
However, people should be more concerned with keeping their privacy and freedom of speech safe from government threats. And we have Snowden to thank for making us aware of the seriousness of those threats.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.