SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- In a place of honor on my office wall is a photograph of me relieving myself in the bushes alongside the field where some of us here play softball on summer Saturdays. It is, happily, taken from the back.
A writer named John Leo took it and later gave it to me with a caption, which was words I wrote years ago about "whistle-blowers," folks with the courage or foolishness to tell the world the secrets, embarrassing or evil, of their organizations.
The caption reads:
"No government is safe from leaks; no society is safe without them."
That's what I thought then; that's what I think now.
In the matter of Edward Snowden, I have no opinion as to whether he is a hero, a traitor or just a self-celebrating fool. I do, however, think he is necessary and his timing is good.
I have written a good deal about whistle-blowers. They are an obsessive bunch of folks who fascinate me in their desire to make the world a better place, or just get even with it. Most are a little crazy or a lot crazy -- or are driven nuts by what happens to them after they speak the officially unspeakable.
Actually, I have admired most of them, even as they unravel in obsession and pay a horrific price for jumping up and shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Their shouts, right or wrong, good or bad, give all the rest of us just a little bit more freedom. We may not have the guts or nuts to do what they do, but they scare the hell out of governments or corporations afraid that one of us might be the next to stand up and be counted.
Among the whistle-blowers I've spent time with and written about was Curt Flood, who challenged Major League Baseball by refusing to be traded away by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. In court, all the way to the Supreme Court, he said he was a man, not a piece of machinery. He did not have as many lawyers as professional baseball does, and he ended up broke and broken.
Then there was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force systems manager who, under oath, admitted that the military was lying about the billions of dollars in cost overruns connected to a new transport plane, the C-5A being built by Lockheed. He was fired, but the courts forced the Air Force to give him back his job. They did not, however, give him any work to do. I walked the halls of the Pentagon with him, watching as old friends, colonels and generals, turned away from him or stood facing the walls as he passed. "Shunning," the Amish call it.
I don't know what will happen to Snowden, who has blown the whistle on the extent of electronic data collection and spying being done. The powers that be, beginning with the White House, will try to crush him -- and probably succeed. He will be pummeled and probably imprisoned for exposing "Top Secret" documents. Perhaps he deserves it.
I don't know what he deserves, but we deserve -- to his credit -- to be able to find out and debate the secrets of our national security complex. And that particularly includes private companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and Blackwater and all the other private armies and intelligence firms doing the dirty work of the American military. Those "contractors" -- our Hessians --- are actually fighting our wars, killing our "enemies," spending our money and are unaccountable.
Good man or bad, crazy or sane, Edward Snowden may be our best chance to find out something, probably only a little, about what these firms are actually doing in the name of We, the people.