The surveillance saga over expiring Patriot Act provisions continues to percolate in Washington even as the eleventh hour approaches. As I write, Mitch McConnell has convened a special Sunday session of the Senate to hammer out an outcome acceptable to all factions. Amid the debate, accusations swirl from all quarters about the pros and cons of extending surveillance powers to government agencies and proponents of strong surveillance have whipped out the national-security-card in an attempt to rally support for extending the surveillance status quo. Even the Obama administration has joined the chorus calling it critical to the nation’s security.
From another corner of the world, Edward Snowden, in an hour-long interview with the Guardian newspaper, reflects from his exile in Russia that while the debate would not have been contemplated two years ago, there are far more intrusive NSA bulk collection programs which also need looking at. But the fact that there is even the hint that a surveillance policy may be reined-in rather than ratcheted-up is laudable,
“In our modern era, that is without precedent. The idea that they can lock us out and there will be no change is no longer tenable. Everyone accepts these programmes were not effective, did not keep us safe and, even if they did, represent an unacceptable degradation of our rights.”
But Snowden seems baffled by the position of the bulk of the electorate, who appear content to sit on the sidelines while the titans of politics conduct their massive tug-of-war. He thinks that the argument of supporters of surveillance, or at least those who are neutral, does not hold water,
“People who say they don’t care about privacy because they have got nothing to hide have not thought too deeply about these issues. What they are really saying is I do not care about this right. When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide, that is no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.”
He dismisses attacks against his disclosures which contend that he aided and abetted terrorist acts, so pointing out that tremendous good was achieved by bringing the facts to light. Furthermore, he observes that by their own admission, agencies cannot specify even one instance where the massive amounts of collected data have thwarted an attack. On the contrary, he points out that,
“We know in the Charlie Hebdo attack, in the attack in Canada, in the attack in Australia, all these individuals were known to government in advance of the attacks. It was not the fact that we were not watching people enough but the fact we were watching people so much we did not understand what we had.”
Government authorities’ assertions that his information was critical for terrorist ignores the fact that terrorists are not stupid, were aware beforehand of surveillance techniques, and are nimble enough to adapt and adjust to them.
On the particulars of the current debate over the Patriot Act, Snowden thinks that Senators are in a bind, given the mood there and in the nation,
“They can either lose their authority entirely or they can accept at least some reforms.”
Almost two years on from the first of his disclosures about surveillance, Snowden has defied critics in the intelligence agencies who predicted he would end up largely forgotten and miserable in exile in Russia. Instead, he has emerged as an icon for the privacy movement, able to communicate through the internet with campaigners in the US and elsewhere round the world.
Perhaps, in hindsight, President Obama wishes he had “scrambled jets” and thereby avoided the damage caused by Snowden’s disclosures and the drama unfolding on his watch nearly two years on.