Edward Snowden Is Winning

The Atlantic
Edward Snowden Is Winning
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Edward Snowden Is Winning

Earlier this month, Politico warned that Edward Snowden's "nightmare may be coming true" — that is, that his efforts would yield no systemic change. Even at the time, that was an iffy argument. But now it seems that the opposite is the case. Edward Snowden may be getting everything his heart desired: a change in policies, a shift in attitudes, and — perhaps surprising even himself — personal freedom.

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When Snowden first reached out to reporters, offering details on the National Security Agency's surveillance systems, he did so with some trepidation. "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," he wrote in one of his first communications with The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, but "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant." In a video interview with the paper, he spoke the line that was the focal point of that Politico article:

The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.

Which brings us to today.

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Policy changes are moving forward. Later today, the House of Representatives will vote on an amendment to a Department of Defense spending bill that would rescind any funding that could be used by the NSA to collect metadata on phone calls — one of the aspects of the agency's surveillance revealed by Snowden.

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The amendment, proposed by Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has already earned a stern condemnation from the White House. Which doesn't bode well for its adoption, of course; even if it passes the House — which, a representative of Amash's office told The Atlantic Wire, the representative expects will happen — it would then need to be maintained by the Senate and signed by the president. While the president didn't offer a veto threat, he probably doesn't yet feel that he needs to. On Tuesday, the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee released a statement condemning the amendment, calling it "unwise."

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Ninety days ago, a vote on the House floor to rescind funding for a national security program would have been unheard of — as would any of the other bills proposed in the House and Senate to increase openness about the FISA Court (which authorizes the surveillance tools) or to reform the laws used to justify them. As Adam Serwer outlined at MSNBC, privacy advocates sense a shift on Capitol Hill.

“I think reform is coming,” says Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California. “It’ll take time to determine exactly what form it will take, but I think there is an inexorable move towards greater transparency of the FISA Court and greater restructuring of the surveillance programs.”

Attitudes on surveillance are changing. Past members of that Court agree. Two former appointees have proposed changes to how the court works, primarily by introducing an advocate for the public into a process that currently involves a one-sided presentation by the government.

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The public itself is increasingly skeptical of the Court's decisions. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University earlier this month found that a majority of Americans thought the NSA's collection of phone metadata was too intrusive. A slightly smaller majority, 51 percent, nonetheless support that collection — which was down from a poll conducted by ABC in June. That poll put support at 58 percent.

In a poll released Wednesday, however, ABC's numbers have shifted significantly.

Americans overwhelmingly think the NSA surveillance efforts intrude on some citizens’ privacy rights – 74 percent say so – and about half, 49 percent, see the spying as an intrusion on their own personal privacy. In each case, though, some also see such intrusions as justified, 39 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

The net result is that 40 percent see the NSA activities not merely as intrusions on some Americans’ privacy rights, but as unjustified intrusions.

That percentage is ten points higher than the previous high recorded by ABC.

In other words, there's a trend. The public is increasingly concerned that the government is not finding the right balance between surveillance and privacy. That trend is slow and could easily reverse, but increased attention to privacy from efforts such as the bills on Capitol Hill could also serve as positive reinforcement for it.

Snowden may walk free. When his identity was first revealed by The Guardian, Snowden worried that he might be abducted or killed by the CIA for his leak. Holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, it wasn't clear whether or not Snowden would end up back in the United States to face criminal charges.

Now it appears that Snowden is about to become a resident of Moscow — a guy with a job and an apartment who's waiting to figure out which Central American country he wants to retire to. Who knows, maybe even find a new girlfriend, if any are willing to overlook his iffy relationship record. This is contingent on the goodwill of the somewhat mercurial Russian government, but so far it seems like a decent risk.

On July 24, some eight weeks after the revelations that shook Washington and made his a household name, Edward Snowden appears to be getting everything he wanted.

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