What Did NSA Leaks Change About Public Opinion?
A bust of the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that was sneaked overnight into Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park in New York on April 6. (Aymann Ismail / ANIMALNewYork / AP)
Two years ago this month, a 29-year-old government contractor named Edward Snowden became the Daniel Ellsberg of his generation, delivering to journalists a tranche of secret documents shedding light on the government’s national security apparatus. But while Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers detailing one specific military conflict in Southeast Asia, Snowden released details of the U.S. government’s sprawling surveillance machine that operates around the globe.
In the years since Snowden’s historic act of civil disobedience, the politics of surveillance have evolved. For much of the early 2000s, politicians of both parties competed to show who could be a bigger booster of the National Security Agency’s operations, fearing that any focus on civil liberties might make them look soft on terrorism. Since Snowden, though, the political paradigm has shifted.
The most persuasive proof of that came a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Senate failed to muster enough votes to reauthorize the law that would allow the NSA to engage in mass surveillance. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s prominent role in that episode underscored the political shift: A decade after the GOP mastered the art of crafting 9/11-based arguments about terrorism to win elections, one of the party’s top presidential candidates proudly led the fight against a key legislative initiative of the so-called war on terror.
There has also been a shift in public opinion, demonstrated in a new ACLU-sponsored pollshowing that almost two-thirds of American voters want Congress to curtail the NSA’s mass surveillance powers. The survey showed that majorities in both parties oppose renewing the old Patriot Act.
But far fewer changes are evident in the government’s executive branch.
The Obama administration, for example, is marking the two-year anniversary of Snowden’s disclosures by intensifying its crackdown on government whistleblowers. After prosecuting more such whistleblowers than any previous administration, Obama’s appointees are pushing a rulethat the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight says would deny “federal employees in ‘sensitive’ positions the right to appeal a termination or demotion” when they expose wrongdoing. In practice, writes POGO’s Elizabeth Hempowicz, the rule would make “whistleblowers who hold these positions particularly vulnerable to retaliation.”
The Obama administration has also not stopped its selective enforcement of laws against those who mislead Congress or leak classified government information.
Take the issue of perjury. After prosecuting pitcher Roger Clemens for allegedly lying to Congress about use of performance-enhancing drugs, the Obama administration has not similarly prosecuted National Intelligence Director James Clapper for insisting to Congress in 2013 that the government does not collect data on Americans. Clapper’s claim was wholly debunked by Snowden’s documents.
The Obama administration has also continued to promise to bring harsh charges against Snowden, but has not been punitive to its own employees who give journalists classified information that makes the government look good. A draft Inspector General report found that CIA Director Leon Panetta disclosed classified information about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, and former CIA director David Petraeus provided such information to his biographer. Panetta was never charged, and Petraeus was let off with a misdemeanor.
Snowden, meanwhile, sits in exile — a fugitive for exposing his own government’s unprecedented system of surveillance. Some Snowden critics say he should come back to the United States to air his grievances in open court, but journalist Glenn Greenwald notes that Snowden is “barred under the Espionage Act even from arguing that his leaks were justified; he wouldn’t be permitted to utter a word about that.”
Snowden’s actions altered what Americans know — and think — about government spying. But America’s government hasn’t become any more tolerant of those who blow the whistle.