Associated Press journalist and author Jonathan Katz recently tweeted, “I'm floored about how much of my Twitter feed is devoted to [NSA leaker Edward] Snowden, and how little to revelations that our government is spying on us.” Somehow, the revelation that a top-secret NSA surveillance program gathers phone data and monitors major Internet sites like Google and Facebook to detect “suspicious activity”- with suspicious broadly defined- has taken a backseat to the tale of Snowden himself.
Even the latest revelation by the FBI Director Robert Mueller that his agency uses unmanned drones for domestic monitoring barely got more than a news blurb. So, is Snowden the greatest American patriot since the Pentagon Papers or is he a self-serving threat to American security…um, who cares? The real story here that shouldn’t be ignored is that the feds are watching!
Regardless of who Snowden is and whether or not he was justified in his actions, the true significance of his revelations is that domestic surveillance has become a capstone to a decade in which the American people have increasingly, and sometimes unwittingly, relinquished our individual rights to privacy and civil liberties to fight a nebulous and continually expanding “War on Terror” with no borders, no limits, and no foreseeable end. After all, how does one win a ‘war’ against ideological acts?
While the government’s insistence that the NSA programs have disrupted several specific terror plots remains open to interpretation, what is clear is that this endless war has resulted in a policy of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, repeated abuses of international human rights laws, revelations that the U.S. was torturing enemy combatants, legalized violations of civil liberties via the Patriot Act, and secret CIA prisons—to name a few. It is a sad irony that since this War began, domestically, we Americans have relinquished many of the freedoms we claim to defend globally for the right to tap into Al-Qaeda’s Facebook updates and emails (they do send emails and update Facebook, right?)
What remains most disconcerting about this revelation into our spiraling lack of privacy is that we still don’t know the extent of what information is being collected, how long it’s kept, what it’s used for, and who actually sees it. Forgive me if I am even less comforted by President Obama's revelation that this program, which remained top-secret until now, is also monitored by a rubber-stamping, secretive court with far-reaching powers that is completely unaccountable to the public. This level of secrecy and sweeping powers to broadly interpret laws and expand government reach into our private lives should be subjected to a level of transparency and checks and balances that are not yet available to us.
Regardless of your personal feelings about Snowden, there is no denying the magnitude of his leak and its impact on the way we view our government and its role in our private lives for decades to come. Snowden himself is inconsequential to the fact that we have a right to a larger degree of insight into when and how the government sees fit to violate the very rights that are the foundation of this country and that we are fighting to protect abroad. We have the right to debate those violations publicly. And we have the right to have those public debates take place without fear of reprisal or ending up in a secret prison.
President Bush famously declared that the War on Terror "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." More and more, Americans are realizing that this is not a realistic goal as the very system we’ve created to protect ourselves from outside threats seems to be turning in on us. Speculation about Snowden should take a backseat to speculation on the future of our privacy and civil liberties.
France François is the founder of the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. She has an M.A. in International Development and Conflict Resolution. Follow her on Twitter at @FranceF3