Edward Snowden's service to America: shining a spotlight on the surveillance state

Edward Snowden has been vilified by some as a reckless leaker of sensitive government information and jeopardizing national security at risk and lauded by others as a brave whistle-blower who called attention to the vast surveillance state and the erosion of citizens' civil liberties.  Regardless of what one thinks of the man and his motives, he should be thanked for sparking a much needed national conversation on surveillance and privacy.  After 9/11, much of the public has taken it as an article of faith that the federal government is doing what needs to be done to keep us safe, and no more surveillance than necessary.  That notion is now in doubt and it is a good thing.

Since Snowden's disclosures took place, citizens have learned what the FISA Court is and some of the problems of its membership.  The New York Times recently reported that "the American intelligence agencies, which experienced a boom in financing and public support in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have entered a period of broad public scrutiny and skepticism with few precedents since the exposure of spying secrets and abuses led to the historic investigation by the Senate’s Church Committee nearly four decades ago."  Some of these critics are within Congress, like Senators Wyden and Udall, but Snowden should take some of the credit for his information was surely one of the catalysts as well for sounding the alarm.

Glenn Greenwald views a recent Pew Poll as a major shift in public opinion on surveillance. For the first time since the 9/11 attacks, respondents were more worried that the government's anti-terror policies are a violation of civil liberties and privacy rather than about national security.  The Pew Poll stated that currently, 47 percent of those recently polled said the government had gone too far in restricting citizens' civil liberties. Another Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that nearly 3/4 of the respondents said the government was unjustifiably infringing on privacy rights.  People are beginning to ask questions about what the government is doing and whether all of it is actually making us safer.

Last week, we also saw a stunning vote in the House of Representatives on an amendment put forward by Rep. Jason Amash (R-MI), a Tea Party favorite, and veteran Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) that would defund the NSA collection of phone records.  The amendment failed, but by only 12 votes, 205-217 which is a fairly shocking result in the the post-9/11 environment and also surprising in the bipartisan nature of the support for it with 94 Democrats and 114 Republicans supporting the Amash/Conyers bill--and they say that bipartisanship is dead in Congress.

Snoweden of course did not precipitate all these events by himself, but his disclosures have certainly played a role.  As Eugene Robinson wrote in a Washington Post oped yesterday: 

Intelligence officials in the Obama administration and their allies on Capitol Hill paint the fugitive analyst as nothing but a traitor who wants to harm the United States. Many of those same officials grudgingly acknowledge, however, that public debate about the NSA’s domestic snooping is now unavoidable.

This would be impossible if Snowden — or someone like him — hadn’t spilled the beans. We wouldn’t know that the NSA is keeping a database of all our phone calls. We wouldn’t know that the government gets the authority to keep track of our private communications — even if we are not suspected of terrorist activity or associations — from secret judicial orders issued by a secret court based on secret interpretations of the law.

I agree with Robinson that Snowden, whatever you think of the man, has done the nation a great public service by making people ask hard questions and demand answers about the super secret surveillance state.