Snowden's Gambit Is Working

Snowden's revelations have had a far-reaching impact, as evidenced by the above German protest, and are finally effecting change in the US. Via Mike Herbst/Flickr

Edward Snowden opened his pilfered cache of top secret NSA files to the public for a relatively simple reason. "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things," he told The Guardian. Snowden consciously sacrificed a comfortable citizenship in the richest nation in history because, he says, he felt the public had a right to know the extent to which the government was snooping on their data—and because he thought that by disclosing NSA operations, he'd effect change.

He was right. A New York Times report brings news that a presidentially appointed committee has concluded that NSA activities must be reined in—that they should continue, but with much more oversight.

"The committee’s report, the officials said, also argues in favor of codifying and publicly announcing the steps the United States will take to protect the privacy of foreign citizens whose telephone records, Internet communications or movements are collected by the NSA," according to the Times.

President Obama himself has endorsed the notion.

“I’ll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA, and, you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence,” he said in an interview on MSNBC last week.

A small, nebulous victory, maybe—details about what those reforms or restraint might actually be remain scarce—but a victory nonetheless. The Times report details other changes, too: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has apparently been effectively relieved of his command over the cyber-spying effort that focuses on foreign leaders. And the already widely discussed proposal to create a public advocate to participate in secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court hearings is likely to be a recommendation from the report.

In short, Snowden's gambit is working. Swaths of the American public, as well as some of their sharpest-tongued representatives, have responded vehemently to the revelations, and called for reform. There's been a media firestorm, a rally in DC, and numerous Congressional hearings. And now, maybe, a genuine recalibration of how the state deals with domestic surveillance.

The deep irony here is that the findings of Obama's personally appointed committee are legitimizing Snowden's actions as a clandestine, law-breaking whistleblower—and directly refuting the statements the president had made on the matter.

In his speech on the NSA last August, Obama claimed that Snowden was not a patriot, that he should have disclosed the leaks publicly, and that he would have been protected by whistleblower laws.

"My preference, and I think the American people's preference, would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place."

The truth is, it took Snowden's leaks to inspire that debate. There would have been no presidential committee, no public rebukes to James Clapper, no major shifts in spying policy preferences without them. It only happened because Snowden blew the whistle in such a dramatic and public way. The public had to know what was going on to weigh in, and Obama (or any of his forebears, for that matter) never intended to let us in on the discussion.

And that's what Snowden wanted to change.

"The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosure,” he told the Times in a separate interview last October. “So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision."

“However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

Despite the protestations of detractors that sit at highest levels of government, despite the angry dismissals, and those who've labeled him a traitor, Snowden is beginning to achieve exactly what he set out to do. His greatest fear, he said, was that nothing would change—but that fear is all but unfounded now. Whether it will be enough, of course, remains to be seen. But he's gotten his debate, he's beginning to win it, and sunlight is creeping in.

Topics: surveillance, nsa, privacy, Snowden

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