Edward Snowden is wrong: His mission has not been accomplished.

December 26, 2013

Edward Snowden photographed in Moscow, Russia December, 2013. (Photo by Barton Gellman for The Washington Post)

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” former NSA contractor Edward Snowden told my Washington Post colleague Barton Gellman in Moscow this month. Snowden went on to explain that he had "already won" because the journalists working from the documents he secreted away from the NSA are giving the public a chance to weigh in on surveillance policies.

But while it's not quite flight-suit level deception, calling the current state of affairs mission accomplished is a significant change in the scope of Snowden's ambitions compared to when he first stepped forward as the source of the NSA documents. In a video interview with the Guardian released shortly after he stepped out of the shadows, he  espoused many of the same hopes about the public having input on the secret machinations of intelligence agencies. But he also gave a much more lofty goal: substantive policy change.

The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.

And the months ahead, the years ahead it's only going to get worse until eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy.

So far, Snowden's "greatest fear" has come true. Public opinion over his disclosures has been divided and no significant policy changes to NSA surveillance have emerged. And the administration is standing by the status quo despite the lack of evidence that it has been effective at its stated goal of halting terrorist attacks.

This is not to say there hasn't been any movement at all to curtail NSA surveillance practices. The Amash Amendment, which would have defunded NSA practices, gained considerable traction despite opposition from the leadership in both parties. Even now, opponents of the programs continue to toil on legislative proposals aimed at reducing or providing oversight to the government's surveillance authority. And a federal judge said that NSA practices are likely unconstitutional in a recent ruling.

But there has also been significant action by defenders of the NSA's practices. There are proposals being pushed that would effectively codify some of the practices Snowden found the most troubling, like Senator Diane Feinstein's (D-Calif.) legislation. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has continued to renew authorizations for NSA data collection programs. And while the presidential task force appointed to review the programs offered some recommendations that would reign in surveillance, on the whole, many of their suggestions shifted responsibility for some aspects of the most controversial programs. Besides, so far, the White House isn't taking their advice anyway.

Of course, this could just all be a result of the slow pace of change in Washington. Perhaps there will be a real upheaval, either through the courts or legislative action. But for the time being, Snowden's declaration of victory seems premature, if not a serious retcon of his initial goals.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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