Edward Snowden’s misplaced trust in a do-nothing Congress

January 23

(Barton Gellman for The Washington Post)

For a guy who thought the established system was so broken he had to circumvent it, Edward Snowden sure seems to have a lot of faith in America's legislature.

The former intelligence contractor spent much of his livechat with Twitter users Thursday — hosted on the Web site freesnowden.is — pressuring lawmakers to reform U.S. privacy and whistleblower protection rules. He made reference to a just-released governmental report urging President Obama to end the National Security Agency's bulk phone records collection program, and turned it instead against members of Congress whom he expects to act.

"I don’t see how Congress could ignore [the report], as it makes it clear there is no reason at all to maintain the 215 program," Snowden said before quoting the document at length.

Later, Snowden called on legislators to extend whistleblower protections to government contractors and to beef up the law's existing guarantees.

"Maybe when Congress comes together to end the programs the PCLOB [Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board] just announced was illegal, they’ll reform the Whistleblower Protection Act, and we’ll see a mechanism for all Americans, no matter who they work for, to get a fair trial," said Snowden.

Before he signed off, Snowden called on Americans to petition their members of Congress on NSA reform.

To see Snowden turning to Congress makes a lot of sense. The president has said he'll change the Section 215 program — not eliminate it. But if Snowden were familiar at all with the nation's legislature, he'd also know its recent track record provides little cause for hope. A recent bipartisan spending agreement notwithstanding, Congress lacks many other achievements of note. Some even say this Congress may be the least productive one we've ever seen.

Even if Congress weren't so behind, the personalities opposed to NSA reform are so powerful as to be major obstacles to change. Among the agency's most strident defenders are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"Supposing the program is knocked out and, God forbid, a year down the pike something happens?" Feinstein said recently. "I'd never forgive myself."

The appetite for ending the NSA's bulk metadata program is much greater in the House, where an attempt by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to defund the agency's bulk surveillance operation was narrowly defeated last year. Amash and his allies performed better than expected. But House committee chairs were said to have lobbied hard in that showdown, and members such as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) — who heads the House Intelligence Committee — are still refusing to budge.

There's not much else Snowden can do except wait for Congress to act in his favor. But given the contents of his wishlist, he's likely to be waiting a long time.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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