Five years have passed since Edward Snowden told Americans that our government was spying on us. Before he said anything, most of us believed that it was illegal for the NSA (or the CIA or any of the other myriad intelligence agencies) to spy on Americans. Indeed, the NSA's charter expressly forbids it. But Snowden came forward with the proof. And it was damning.
The revelations began a national debate on what, exactly, Americans want their three-letter agencies to do to keep them safe. Nobody wants to see another day like September 11, 2001. We all want security. But we also want to maintain our civil rights and civil liberties.
Personally, I would rather face another terrorist attack than give up my right to privacy. But that's just me. Where does the rest of America stand after five years? And where is Congress in all this?
First, let's look at Ed Snowden. I think the guy is a bona fide hero. Without him, we wouldn't have any idea of the depths to which US intelligence agencies were spying on us and retaining the information in massive depositories in Maryland and in the Utah desert.
Believe it or not, there have been a lot of public opinion polls about Snowden over the past five years. And the results haven't changed terribly much in that period, except very recently. A 2015 poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 64 percent of Americans held a negative view of Snowden, versus 36 who held a positive view. Snowden's approval rating in Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Spain was found to be over 80 percent.
A year later, after a petition on the White House website calling for President Obama to pardon Snowden attracted more than 160,000 signatures, a Rasmussen poll found that 15 percent of Americans considered Snowden to be a "hero," 30 percent considered him a "traitor," and 45 percent said he was somewhere in the middle.
By 2018 things had changed. A Time Magazine poll found that 54 percent of Americans believed Snowden had done the right thing versus 38 percent who thought he should be prosecuted. Why the sudden change? Because Snowden's revelations had finally found voices on both the left and the right on Capitol Hill.
Much of the NSA's overreach is a result of the 2001 Patriot Act. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) proposed the bill on October 23, 2001, in response to the September 11 attacks and the concurrent anthrax attacks in the US. It was passed into law the next day by a vote of 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate, with Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) the only dissenting vote. The Act allowed the indefinite detention of immigrants; it gave law enforcement officers the authority to search a home or business without the owner's or occupant's consent or knowledge; it expanded the use of "National Security Letters," which allow the FBI to search telephone, email, and financial records without a warrant; and it allowed expanded access for law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records.
Several members of Congress who opposed the law sounded the alarm almost immediately, saying that Americans would lose their civil liberties in the name of national security. But they didn't gain much traction until Snowden went public with his revelations. It's taken five years, but Snowden and his document release really have begun to have an impact on the intelligence community and its collection programs. Not all the news is good. But at the very least, there is a public debate, and that's thanks to Ed Snowden.
First, pressure from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and from the right-wing Freedom Caucus resulted in the NSA ending its policy under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that allowed it to search literally all internet data that passed through its computers for certain search terms and to collect that data if any part of the communication passed outside of the US, even if one or both parties to the conversation were Americans. NSA now limits collection to communications coming from or going to a foreign national. We only learned about this program from Snowden.
When it comes to actual legal changes -- those mandated by acts of Congress -- however, we're just not there yet. In May, Congress voted mostly along party lines to renew a provision of the Patriot Act that allows the warrantless internet surveillance. Snowden warned us about this in 2013 and nobody seemed to care. It's still law, even though Donald Trump has complained about it and accused Democrats of using it against him in the 2016 election.
When I sat down to write this article, I really wanted to talk about the success of Snowden's revelations. For some reason, I thought there were more. There certainly have been some great leaps forward. Americans are far better informed now than they were in 2013. But the government is still spying on us with impunity. The courts are no help. Our only hope is to elect like-minded supporters of privacy and civil liberties. Or we can hope for another Snowden to shake things up again.
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