Yes, we have Snowden to thank for NSA surveillance debate

 

The Guardian/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian/AFP/Getty Images

The argument over Edward Snowden intensified today in the wake of a New York Times editorial calling for “some form of clemency” for the leaker.

The Times argued that NSA surveillance has already drawn rebukes from federal judges, and far-reaching calls for reform from the new panel appointed by Obama, “entirely because of information provided to journalists by Edward Snowden,” info that has “enormous value.”

Kevin Drum has similar thoughts:

Without Snowden, there was zero chance of any serious discussion of NSA surveillance taking place. Regardless of what you think about Snowden personally, you have him to thank if you believe this debate has been valuable. If it had been left up to President Obama and the security establishment, we wouldn’t know a hundredth of what Snowden has revealed.

I wouldn’t defend every last thing Snowden has done. But life is messy, and you don’t always get to control events with precision. Realistically, your choice is between (a) approving of what Snowden did, warts and all, or (b) approving of the status quo, with all of us none the wiser about what our government is doing. I’d say the choice is obvious.

Yup. Of course Snowden is the reason why the debate unfolded as it has. Indeed, you don’t have to look any farther than the initial pages of the report released by the Obama-appointed panel for clear proof of this:

On August 27th, 2013, the President announced the creation of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. The immediate backdrop for our work was a series of disclosures of classified information involving foreign intelligence collection by the National Security Agency. The disclosures revealed intercepted collections that occurred inside and outside of the United States…Although these disclosures and concerns of many people in the United States and abroad have informed this Report, we have focused more broadly on the creation of sturdy foundations for the future, safeguarding (as our title suggests) liberty and security in a rapidly changing world.

Those disclosures, of course, are the ones that were engineered by Snowden. If you read through the whole report, which I urge you to do, you’ll note that it’s hard to see how the debate could have taken place in this manner without them. It offers an extensive, and judicious, response to multiple arguments in favor of the bulk surveillance program, arguing that there is no way to guarantee that private information will not be obtained for illegitimate reasons; that there’s no way to eliminate the danger of abuse; and that the safeguard against obtaining the content of communications is insufficient because even meta-data can reveal an enormous amount about someone’s private life.

It’s hard to see how such a detailed and well argued case against the program would have been conceivable without the sort of knowledge of NSA activities that Snowden’s revelations brought us. Yes, Obama called for a review of surveillance and greater accountability and transparency into national security programs back in May, and if he embraces real reform, he’ll deserve credit for that. But it wasn’t until after the Snowden revelations that the administration released the legal rationale specifically for NSA bulk collection (which the panel’s report deals with extensively), in a move CBS News described as “a direct response to the outcry Snowden’s leaks created.” The President’s Review Group was rolled out at the same time.

Perhaps something approximating these things would have happened anyway. But would the panel really have been able to do the work it did without the Snowden revelations?

The panel itself suggests otherwise, noting that the revelations “informed” its report. Indeed they did. Reading the full report leaves little doubt that this debate has been exceptionally valuable and almost certainly would not have unfolded as it did if Edward Snowden had never contacted Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post.

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