Why Americans Got Bored of the NSA Story

Snowden is so last year. And that’s reformers’ problem.

A portrait of Edward Snowden declaring him a 'hero' is seen during a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The disclosures of widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency of US allies has caused an international uproar, with leaders in Europe and Latin America demanding an accounting from the United States. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Lucia Graves
Jan. 22, 2014, 3:47 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced his long-awaited re­forms to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance pro­gram, it was met by a col­lect­ive yawn. It was the Fri­day be­fore a hol­i­day week­end, and not many Amer­ic­ans were listen­ing. Those who were were find­ing it dif­fi­cult.

Fifty per­cent of Amer­ic­ans have heard noth­ing about the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­als, and 41 per­cent said they’d heard just a little, ac­cord­ing to a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter/USA Today poll. Taken to­geth­er the num­bers mean that nine out of 10 cit­izens had little in­terest in what Obama had to say fol­low­ing six months of heated policy de­bate in Wash­ing­ton.

It’s not that the is­sue isn’t im­port­ant (the poll also found 53 per­cent of re­spond­ents dis­ap­prove of the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion prac­tices around In­ter­net and tele­phone metadata), but that something was miss­ing — an ele­ment that would cap­ture the ima­gin­a­tion of Amer­ic­ans and al­low them to pay at­ten­tion to an im­port­ant (wonky!) area of policy.

In his speech, Obama stuck to policy, avoid­ing nearly all talk of con­tro­ver­sial leak­er Ed­ward Snowden. “I am not go­ing to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s ac­tions or his mo­tiv­a­tions,” Obama said. That, per­haps, is where he lost much of Amer­ica. The ques­tion of wheth­er Ed­ward Snowden is a hero or a vil­lian has been a fa­vor­ite de­bate top­ic of Amer­ic­ans since news of the survel­laince pro­gram first broke in June.

Google trends shows a spike of in­terest back in June when Snowden first went pub­lic with in­form­a­tion de­tail­ing the NSA’s vast data-col­lec­tion pro­grams. In­terest in Snowden climbed even high­er later that month, as pub­lic­a­tions probed the pri­vacy im­plic­a­tions for Amer­ic­ans and rami­fic­a­tions for his per­son­al life.

By Au­gust in­terest levels had dropped to less than a quarter of that peak in­terest and nev­er re­gained mo­mentum, with in­terest in the NSA run­ning roughly par­al­lel to in­terest in Ed­ward Snowden over time. There was an­oth­er spike in in­terest around late Oc­to­ber, when news broke of the NSA us­ing its sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion to spy on Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel.

By avoid­ing talk of Snowden, Obama seems to think he’s tak­ing the high road. “The sen­sa­tion­al way in which these dis­clos­ures have come out has of­ten shed more heat than light,” Obama said in his speech. There’s cer­tainly truth to that, but as any journ­al­ist who’s writ­ten an an­ec­dot­al lede can tell you, you lose something when you take the hu­man ele­ment out of your ar­gu­ment: people’s abil­ity to care.

Liber­tari­an crit­ic Rand Paul, the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky who has been out­spoken in his op­pos­i­tion to the NSA’s in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing prac­tices, has a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at it. “I think there would have been ab­so­lutely no re­form without Snowden,” Paul said after Obama’s speech. “We wouldn’t have any of this, we wouldn’t have any dis­cus­sion.”

Snowden isn’t just the per­son who birthed the story; he also helped keep it in the con­ver­sa­tion. A Google search for “Ed­ward Snowden” and “hero or vil­lain” turns up close to 10,000 res­ults. And any­one who at­ten­ded a hol­i­day party this year was likely asked to weigh in on the di­cho­tomy by at least one well-mean­ing re­l­at­ive.

If the re­cep­tion of the pres­id­ent’s speech on Twit­ter is any meas­ure, Paul may be right about how deeply bound Snowden is to the story, or at least to the hearts and at­ten­tion spans of Amer­ic­ans. The press con­fer­ence was held just be­fore MLK Day week­end, and prac­tic­ally every­one — from cit­izens to journ­al­ists to whole news out­lets — was tweet­ing like they were already halfway out the door.

Was #Obama this bor­ing when he was an ad­junct lec­turer? #In­suf­fer­able­G­as­bag

— teri­obri­en (@teri­obri­en) Janu­ary 17, 2014

This is the most bor­ing cov­er­age of the NSA scan­dal yet.

— DWB (@dw­bron­ner) Janu­ary 17, 2014

Watch Obama’s latest bor­ing his­tory lec­ture, we mean big NSA speech LIVE: ht­tp://t.co/t3myQxQVyA

— Slate (@Slate) Janu­ary 17, 2014

Some even sur­mised the bor­ing­ness of Obama’s speech was em­ployed as a polit­ic­al strategy.

Obama’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strategy: make NSA speech so bor­ing and wonk­ish that no one cares to listen care­fully.

— Jeremy (@chica­g­oterp) Janu­ary 17, 2014

It wouldn’t be the first time in 2014 that politi­cians have em­ployed such a strategy. Earli­er this month, Chris Christie pat­en­ted the bor­ing­ness strategy when the New Jer­sey gov­ernor spoke for nearly two hours about traffic delays on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge and, mostly, how he is really, truly a Good Guy™ and how badly hurt you can get when you trust people.

It was a mas­ter class in polit­ic­al gloss: He seemed trans­par­ent (be­cause there were so many words!), but he didn’t ac­tu­ally an­swer any use­ful ques­tions about say, wheth­er his deputy chief of staff even had the au­thor­ity to im­ple­ment the al­leged “traffic study” or why people in his of­fice sought re­venge on Fort Lee in the first place. He did, however, man­age to keep talk­ing un­til there was noth­ing re­port­ers wanted more than for him to stop.

Obama isn’t try­ing to cov­er up a per­son­al scan­dal, but, like Christie, he may be­ne­fit from tak­ing out the heat. Snowden was the lens that made Amer­ic­ans pay at­ten­tion to this is­sue in the first place. By ex­cising him from the con­ver­sa­tion, Amer­ic­ans might just for­get why they were so mad to be­gin with.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4665) }}

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
7 REPUBLICANS ON STAGE
Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
1 days ago
THE LATEST

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.

Source:
×