"The greatest fear that I have," said NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, "is that nothing will change." This was on June 6, in his interview in Hong Kong with The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald. In the months since, Snowden's revelations have provoked a global debate on electronic spying far bigger than anyone expected. In the enthusiasm of his supporters, of which I am one, he seems at times to be winning. In reality, his greatest fear could soon prove prophetic.
"People will see in the media all of these disclosures," he warned. "They'll know the length 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."
Why take the risks? Why fear unwarranted surveillance if we've nothing to hide? Snowden nailed the answer. Because those in power will one day "flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world, you know, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power, and there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it, and it'll be turnkey tyranny."
Those in power have not yet flipped the switch. Despite a self-defeating chorus that insists on continually crying wolf, most Americans do not live in a police state or under fascism. We still have time - and freedom - to heed Snowden's warning. But we could soon lose a precious chunk of both, especially if we fail to force Congress to stand in our interests rather than in those of the surveillance state.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. At the end of October, the Senate Intelligence Committee overwhelmingly passed chairman Diane Feinstein's "FISA Improvements Act" (S-1631), which legalizes and permanently entrenches the National Security Agency's bulk surveillance of American citizens. The bill makes a few cosmetic changes and increases transparency to a limited degree. But, as The Guardian warned, Feinstein granted the NSA power "to search its troves of foreign phone and email communications for Americans' information" without a warrant specifically naming the target. Civil libertarians fear that Feinstein's bill would permit law enforcement agencies to search the vast databases as well. For all her Orwellian language, a vote for Feinstein's bill is a vote for the NSA and the surveillance state.
Against the NSA and its wholesale surveillance stands the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring Act" - or more simply the "USA Freedom Act" (S-1599). Introduced by Vermont democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and right-wing Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the original authors of the Patriot Act, the bill brings together civil libertarians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. John Conyers with Tea Party favorites like Sen. Mike Lee and Congressman Justin Amash.
The Freedom Act would repeal part of the Patriot Act, reform the NSA and the FISA court, end the bulk collection of Americans' phone records, and forbid the NSA to collect or search our Internet communications without a specific warrant.
"The intelligence community has failed to justify its expansive use of these laws," wrote Leahy and Sensenbrenner. "It is simply not accurate to say that the bulk collection of phone records has prevented dozens of terrorist plots."
"The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA's bulk collection of data under the Patriot Act whether it pertains to Americans or foreigners," Sensenbrenner explains. "The US Government would still be able to follow leads and obtain data when it has a reasonable suspicion that someone is connected to terrorism, but it would no longer be able to collect data indiscriminately in bulk from innocent people."
For partisans of the surveillance state," this is precisely "the flaw" that troubles them most. "The essence of terrorism prevention" is that "we don't know who we're after," says Patrick Kelley, the FBI's acting general counsel. "If we're limited to seeing numbers from a known [suspect], then were not very effective."
"We're connecting the dots here, so the fewer dots we that have, the fewer connections we'll make," Kelley explains. "You are reducing the amount of data available and therefore making it much more difficult to make the connections that we need to make."
In a narrow sense, this is the nub of the debate between the two bills. Do we give our law enforcement and intelligence people whatever they think they need to prevent terrorism? Or do we continue to demand specific warrants as our Constitution provides?
But if Ed Snowden is right, as I believe he is, our Congressional representatives will be making a much more fateful choice on our behalf. Do we want to preserve freedom with all its risks? Or do we want the certainty in time of a "turnkey tyranny."
Snowden needs a vote for freedom, and so do we all.