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Posted by on Jun 11, 2013 in Featured, Law, Politics, Scandals, Science & Technology | 7 comments

We still need this debate

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

WASHINGTON — The important thing right now isn’t whether Edward Snowden should be labeled hero or villain. First, let’s have the debate he sparked over surveillance and privacy. Then we can decide how history should remember him.

Snowden is the 29-year-old intelligence analyst and computer geek who has been leaking some of the National Security Agency’s most precious secrets to journalists from The Washington Post and the Guardian. He is now on the lam, having checked out of the Hong Kong hotel where he was holed up for several weeks as he orchestrated a worldwide media splash that shows no sign of ending.

Snowden betrayed his employer, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and his promise not to divulge classified information. He paints what he did as an act of civil disobedience, but he has decided to seek political asylum abroad rather than surrender to authorities and accept the consequences. In published interviews, he comes across as grandiose to the point of self-parody, a legend in his own mind.

He is an imperfect messenger, to say the least. But his message should not be ignored.

Did you know that the NSA is compiling and storing a massive, comprehensive log of our domestic phone calls? I didn’t. Nor did I know that the agency sucks in huge volumes of email traffic and other electronic data overseas — not just communications originating in trouble spots such as Pakistan but also in countries such as Germany and Britain. I would have thought that anyone who accused the U.S. government of “omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance,” as Snowden did in an exchange with Post contributor Barton Gellman, was being paranoid. Now I’m not so sure.

As President Obama noted, nobody is eavesdropping on the phone calls of U.S. citizens and residents. I’m not certain this could be said about email communications in other countries, some of which take privacy as seriously as we do. British Foreign Secretary William Hague felt obliged Monday to reassure Parliament that “our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight” and to legislative scrutiny.

But we have oversight of intelligence operations in this country, too. The problem is that the system works more or less like a rubber stamp.

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has to issue the orders that allow the NSA to collect “metadata” from telephone providers. But as far as I can tell — we are not allowed to know the content of the court’s rulings, and have to make do with crumbs of, well, metadata — the court’s standard answer is yes.

In its 34 years of existence, the court has approved more than 30,000 government requests for surveillance authority while rejecting a grand total of 11. That is not what I’d call oversight.

The NSA’s snooping is also subject to scrutiny by the intelligence committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The chairmen of those panels — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. — have been among the NSA’s most vocal supporters in recent days. But since so much of the committees’ work is classified, they say they can’t tell us why.

And as for Obama, he said last week that “I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy.” Why, then, didn’t he launch the discussion rather than wait for Snowden’s leaks?

In the coming debate, someone should explain why a mid-level computer guy working for a private contractor had access to so many of the NSA’s most closely held secrets. Someone should explain why the intelligence court is evidently so compliant. Someone should explain — perhaps in French, German and Spanish — why our allies’ emails are fair game for the agency’s prying eyes.

But here’s the big issue: The NSA, it now seems clear, is assembling an unimaginably vast trove of communications data, and the bigger it gets, the more useful it is in enabling analysts to make predictions. It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is that paranoia? Then reassure me. Let’s talk about the big picture and decide, as citizens, whether we are comfortable with the direction our intelligence agencies are heading. And let’s remember that it was Snowden, not our elected officials, who opened this vital conversation.


Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected](c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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  • sheknows

    Absolutely ! This is exactly what the press, the media and the government hope we will do, focus on the messenger and not the message.

    The government doesn’t want this debate..ever. Not unless it is in VERY abstract terms and has nothing to do with the information that was disclosed.

    The ACLU has filed a FOIA for the information and the govt. has asked the court for a 30 day period to “review”.
    I am not so confident that the information received will be worth the effort. The last time I saw pages and pages of information released by the feds because of FOIA, 3/4ths of the sentences on every page were blacked out. When the recipients ( two senators, several scientists, and others)were justifiably upset, they were told ” So SUE us”.
    I doubt there will be any debate about this, but I hope I am wrong.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Don’t worry, Eugene. As you can see here at TMV and elsewhere, the debate is alive and well

  • The_Ohioan

    Mr. Robinson is asking all the right questions. It’s only to be hoped that the ACLU does every thing internally and on paper – and has no contractors to ‘help out’.

  • ordinarysparrow

    Thanks Mr. Robinson, i have very similar questions and concerns… Thanks for this well informative and provocative post.

    I have similar questions that i have with the drones; What have we opened up to and what is the end game on this one for the American people and the citizens on this planet….

  • Right on, good article.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    The New York Times:

    Google Wants to Release Details on Classified Requests

    The technology company on Tuesday asked the government for permission to reveal details about the classified requests it gets for the personal information of foreign users.

    Hopefully the government will grant such permission and we will finally start to see exactly what data the government was collecting on foreign users. It is a start, and if followed by similar actions we may start dealing with facts instead of with rumors and assumptions. Great!

  • zephyr

    As Robinson points out, the temptation by many to conflate the messenger with the message is problematic. As we used to say back in the day, let’s try to keep it real. This isn’t likely to happen in the absence of transparency.

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