"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," President Barack Obama promised the American people. It was at a press conference on June 7, and he was responding to a story that Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald had just published on the National Security Agency's (NSA) blanket surveillance of telephone, email, and other electronic communications. With the full authority of his office, Obama flatly denied what would become the most explosive claim made by Greenwald's prime source, whistleblower Edward Snowden, a private contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton who had worked in Hawaii for the super-secret National Security Agency.
Snowden has just secured a year's asylum in Russia, but his words continue to haunt his homeland and its relations with key countries in Europe.
"Not all analysts have the ability to target everything," he said in a video interview that Greenwald recorded with him in Hong Kong the first week in June. "But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your Accountant to a Federal judge to even the President if I had a personal e-mail."
Top officials from Obama's national security team loyally parroted the president's assurance that the spying did not target content, but only the numbers called and other metadata. Like Obama, they absolutely denied Snowden's claim that low-level analysts and private contractors like him could access the content of personal phone calls, emails, and web browsing.
Whom should we believe -- an unknown computer geek called Snowden or the president of the United States and his top national security officials?
Appearing Sunday morning July 28 on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," the intrepid Greenwald defied officials to make their claims and denials under oath. He also promised to reveal how NSA analysts could access content, a simple process he subsequently documented with an article on the agency's super-access software interface XKeyscore.
Greenwald's defiance seems to have worked -- or was it the growing readership of his and Snowden's revelations? In hearings Wednesday before Senator Pat Leahy's Judiciary Committee, the NSA's deputy director John Inglis conceded that agents could track the telephone calls of millions of Americans. He was quick to add that agents "tend to be judicious" in their searches. The government also declassified more information about NSA's surveillance programs. But, as Stephen Colbert would say, Greenwald's reports and official documents on our growing surveillance state are still far "truthier" than anything from Team Obama, which is why we continue to publish Greenwald here at RSN.
For most Americans -- and not just news junkies and infomaniacs -- the continuing flood of revelations and forced admissions has clearly had an impact. The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows that 55% of Americans consider Snowden a whistleblower against 34% who see him as a traitor. The poll was taken before Russian granted Snowden asylum and will likely change, one way or the other. Even so, people are losing whatever faith they had left in what their government tells them. Obama and his officials increasingly look like the butt of Groucho Marx's old joke about the cheating husband whose wife had just caught him in the act. "Who are you going to believe?" he asks her. "Me or your lying eyes?"
Thanks to Snowden and Greenwald, two unexpected glimmers of hope have appeared on the horizon. They are only glimmers, but the time has come to build on them and quit telling ourselves all the well-known reasons we can never win.
The first came from a place where nothing is supposed to happen, the bitterly divided U.S. Congress. In late July, the libertarian Republican Justin Amash, a Tea Party favorite, joined with the liberal Democrat John Conyers to put together a coalition that nearly passed an amendment to cut off all funding for the NSA's bulk collection of electronic communication. The vote was unexpectedly close, 205 to 217. The fight has just begun, including an invitation to Greenwald to appear by video before a bipartisan House panel on domestic surveillance.
The second glimmer of hope comes from Europe. As I wrote in a previous column, the NSA's heavy hand in Germany has created a mini-scandal that is challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election. Several German manufacturers fear that Washington is passing their industrial secrets to their American competitors, while Frau Merkel's government has just cancelled a Cold War-era surveillance pact with the United States and Britain.
"The move appeared largely symbolic, designed to show that the German government was taking action to stop unwarranted surveillance directed against its citizens without actually jeopardizing relations with Washington and London," reported the Associated Press. "With weeks to go before national elections, opposition parties had seized on Snowden's claim that Germany was complicit in the NSA's intelligence-gathering operations."
The German press also responded with nuance to Snowden's new asylum. "Russia of all places, a country that is anything but a flawless democracy," wrote the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, "A country in which a former intelligence agent rules the country with an iron fist. But to blame the whistleblower for all this would either be malicious or naive. Snowden had no other choice."
Snowden's revelation that the NSA has poured some $150 billion into Britain's signals intelligence agency GCHQ in the last three years could create problems there as well, though the British, right and left, are well-practiced at putting a happy face on their servile dependence on the United States. "In a 60-year alliance," said a government spokesman, "it is entirely unsurprising that there are joint projects in which resources and expertise are pooled, but the benefits flow in both directions."
Toothless European lackeys, however opportunistic, and Tea Party Republicans, however principled, do not make the most alluring allies. But their varied reactions to the NSA's blanket surveillance open a new world of possibilities for effective political action. To quote the immigrant labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill, "Don't mourn! Organize!