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.

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