Snowden: A Minor Character In The NSA Story



Edward Snowden's story, as portrayed by the media, has been intensely cinematic. At first, it was "Catch Me If You Can" - then it was "The Terminal". But while the saga of the 33-year-old who leaked details about the National Security Agency has continued to draw focus, his personal story is now ultimately besides the point.

The Obama administration's efforts to keep public attention on Snowden, rather than on the NSA data-gathering that Snowden disclosed, collapsed when Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Snowden "temporary" asylum for one year. That's probably a good thing, because the more the administration struggled to get its mitts on Snowden, the more value he acquired as a potential bargaining chip in Russian hands.

For now, Putin, the ex-KGB chief, is content to be the good guy - the defender of a whistleblower who gained worldwide respect (the Germans, among many others, were very interested to know how the NSA captured their communications) and the protector of a solitary young man from harsh treatment at the hands of U.S. justice. Given the Putin government's track record on freedom and democracy, this is about as ironic as it gets.

Another of the administration's narratives is also in shambles: the one in which congressional Republicans, especially House Republicans, reflexively oppose everything the president says and does. It was Republicans who saved the NSA's data-gathering authority, at least for now, when a majority of Democrats voted to severely restrict it. (Former) House Speaker John Boehner said in a news conference, "I voted last night because these NSA programs have helped keep Americans safe," after he joined the 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats who voted against the restrictions, while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted in favor. (1)

Now that Snowden has, at least for the moment, stepped out of the international spotlight, Americans can get around to having a thoughtful discussion - a discussion the president has claimed, without any credibility at all, that he wants to have - about the reality that there is essentially no electronic communication today that is immune from government capture and examination.

The recent story in The Guardian makes clear that the NSA dragnet scoops up the content, as well as the metadata, of emails, Facebook chats and almost any other communication that moves over the Internet. (2) Nowadays, that includes many voice calls that travel over IP circuits, including Voice over Internet Protocol providers like Vonage and computer-based systems like Skype. I have not seen any confirmation, but I think it's safe to assume that the NSA has the technological means, if not the legal authority, to capture voice calls over traditional landline and cell phone circuits too, despite denials from Gen. Keith Alexander, the chief of the NSA.

The issue we need to sort out is the extent to which this capability is inherently good or bad, and what the legal ground rules should be surrounding the creation, maintenance and use of these technical tools.

So far, the discussion has focused on limitations to the ways that the data can be accessed and who can be targeted. The director of national intelligence declassified several documents this week in order to provide more clarity about the program, and the president met with several key lawmakers yesterday to discuss the surveillance. Public discussions, at least so far, have tended to couch the debate in terms of the importance of privacy for U.S. citizens versus the importance of stopping the plots of foreign terrorists. The idea for the program's supporters is that it is fine for the NSA to spy on foreigners, and that any spying on Americans will be subject to fairly strict limits and will occur only in connection with suspicions of collusion with terrorists. Whether or not the limits need to become stricter, supporters claim, the general principle is sound.

For many people, at home but especially abroad, those restrictions will not be nearly enough protection of personal privacy and liberty. Others will argue in the opposite direction - that we need to use the technology more widely, not less. They will point out that terrorism is just one sort of crime among many, and that it makes no sense to limit these databases to stopping only incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing or the attempt to set off explosives in Times Square.

November will mark the 53th anniversary of JFK's assassination. This was not terrorism in the modern sense. The Warren Commission concluded that there was no foreign involvement. But what if someone, an American or not, were to plot an assassination of a high government official today? If we have the tools to identify and stop such a plot, do we want to keep those tools on the shelf?

Or suppose a third-grader disappears while walking home from school. Don't we want to identify anyone who was on her route home and cross-reference that information with other data that might point to a specific abductor or to the little girl's present location? Many people will disagree, but I can promise one thing: If it's your third-grader, you want the police to get the data right away.

Was the Unabomber a terrorist or just a deranged criminal? Beats me. Would the NSA have been allowed to use its tools to try to stop him? I don't know, but I doubt it. What about the Oklahoma City bombers? They were clearly terrorists, but not foreigners - and their crime was the worst such act on U.S. soil until 9/11. Existing limits on the NSA probably prevent its data from being used to identify and stop such an attack; additional limits would almost certainly do so. Is that what we want?

Terrorism is a very real threat, but hardly the only one, or even the most serious one, which we face in day-to-day life. Yet we have elevated it to a status that it doesn't deserve. That's how politics and policy work. There will always be a boogeyman, whether a communist, an anarchist, a rebel or a drug dealer, depending upon where and when you live. In America today, that boogeyman is a terrorist.

The administration has tried to make Snowden a boogeyman, too. That's a mistake. Certainly the United States has to hold him accountable if he ever lands in our custody; to leave him alone would effectively be the repeal of our government's secrecy laws. We do need the ability to keep some secrets. We don't need to overreact to breaches, however. Having violated the American government's trust, even in the belief that he acted on behalf of the American people, Snowden has made himself unwelcome in his own country except in the courts and holding cells that await his return. But we don't have to move heaven and earth to get him there, either.

Don't worry about where Snowden goes next. Snowden is not the NSA story. The NSA is the NSA story. And that isn't going anywhere.