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What Edward Snowden has achieved, so far

This entry was posted in Controversies on 28 June 2013 by

One of the things that interests me about the current fuss concerning Edward Snowden and the information that has come from him into the public domain via the Guardian and the Washington Post is the light it sheds on reasons why citizens might legitimately be suspicious of their governments.  I wrote a piece about this angle recently in the Observer/Guardian, and my piece generated a lot of comment and was widely circulated across the Net.  It also led to an invitation to debate some of this stuff with Sir Malcolm Rifkind and others at the Frontline Club on July 8.

Today (Thursday) Roger Cohen has a terrific column in the International Herald Tribune listing the things we wouldn’t have known if Edward Snowden hadn’t revealed them.

Here’s a summary of Cohen’s list:

We would not know:

  • how the N.S.A. has been able to access the e-mails or Facebook accounts or videos of citizens across the world
  • how it has secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans
  • how through requests to the compliant and secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.A.) it has been able to bend nine U.S. Internet companies to its demands for access to clients’ digital information

We would not be:

  • debating whether the United States really should have turned surveillance into big business, offering data-mining contracts to the likes of Booz Allen and, in the process, high-level security clearance to myriad folk who probably should not have it
  • having a serious debate at last between Europeans, with their more stringent views on privacy, and Americans about where the proper balance between freedom and security lies

We would not have:

  • legislation to bolster privacy safeguards and require more oversight introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee
  • a letter from two Democrats to the N.S.A. director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, saying that a government fact sheet about surveillance abroad “contains an inaccurate statement” (and where does that assertion leave Alexander’s claims of the effectiveness and necessity of Prism?)

In short, without Snowden’s revelations we would not be having

a long-overdue debate about what the U.S. government does and does not do in the name of post-9/11 security — the standards applied in the F.I.S.A. court, the safeguards and oversight surrounding it and the Prism program, the protection of civil liberties against the devouring appetites of intelligence agencies armed with new data-crunching technology — would not have occurred, at least not now.

Cohen goes on to say:

All this was needed because, since it was attacked in an unimaginable way, the United States has gone through a Great Disorientation. Institutions at the core of the checks and balances that frame American democracy and civil liberties failed. Congress gave a blank check to the president to wage war wherever and whenever he pleased. The press scarcely questioned the march to a war in Iraq begun under false pretenses. Guantánamo made a mockery of due process. The United States, in Obama’s own words, compromised its “basic values” as the president gained “unbound powers.” Snowden’s phrase, “turnkey tyranny,” was over the top but still troubling.


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