You can call him “Eric” all you want, but Edward Snowden is not going away.
On the two-year anniversary of when his leaks detailing secret spy operations at the National Security Agency first emerged, landing like a thunderclap around the world, the former intelligence contractor appears more confident than ever that his actions have permanently altered the surveillance debate.
“The balance of power is beginning to shift,” Snowden said in a statement provided to select news organizations by Amnesty International and Privacy International. “With each court victory, with every change in law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear.”
Snowden expanded on the statement in a Friday New York Times op-ed: “Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing—that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations. Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.”
Snowden has good reason to be riding high after the Senate broke a logjam this week to pass the first significant reform to government surveillance practices since the nation began supercharging its spying powers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The USA Freedom Act, which was swiftly signed into law by President Obama, will effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. call data—the first program exposed by a Snowden-fueled article in The Guardian on June 5, 2013.
But the Freedom Act only deals significantly with one of the NSA’s many spying operations—one that has been deemed illegal by a federal appeals court, ineffective by two government review panels and not even that desired by some high-ranking officials.
And as a stark reminder of that, the journalists who possess the Snowden files were at it again just two days after the law’s passage. The New York Times and ProPublica published new documents Thursday from Snowden’s massive archive revealing that the Obama administration secretly expanded NSA spying beginning in 2012 to collect Americans’ cross-border Internet traffic as part of an effort to thwart and nab foreign hackers.
Snowden insists that only journalists have access to his database and not him, but the timing of the disclosure was as significant as its contents: Though a law was passed, the controversy surrounding government surveillance is not going to go quietly into the night.
Reform-minded lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick Leahy, Ron Wyden, and Mike Lee, seized upon the Freedom Act’s passage and vowed to fight for further curtailments of the government’s snooping activities.
But defense hawks, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom are eyeing the GOP ticket to the White House in 2016, want to undo such legislation. Surveillance is likely to be contentious during the Republican presidential primary, as it fractures the field like virtually nothing else.
To his privacy-minded backers, Snowden is a courageous hero, who acted out of patriotism to expose post-9/11 abuses and unfathomable expansion of surveillance capabilities. To his detractors, however, he’s something far different.
Snowden’s critics have barely simmered their fury in the two years since he became a globe-trotting fugitive. Snowden has committed treason, they say, and should give up his asylum in Russia and return to the U.S. immediately to face trial under the Espionage Act. And they see little difference between him and those would would wage war against the U.S.
“Those who reveal the tactics, sources and methods of our military and intelligence community give playbook to ISIL and al-Qaida,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on the Senate floor Tuesday, shortly before the Freedom Act’s final passage. “The AP declared today the end of [Patriot Act] Section 215 is a … ‘Resounding victory for Edward Snowden.’ A ‘Resounding victory for Edward Snowden.’ It is also a resounding victory for those who plotted against our homeland.”
Vice News journalist Jason Leopold published Thursday the results of a years-long Freedom of Information Act battle with the government finding that some lawmakers asked the Pentagon for information that could be used to “damage” Snowden’s “credibility in the press and the court of public opinion.”
The files obtained by Leopold also claim that Snowden swiped some 900,000 Department of Defense files in addition to those he downloaded from the NSA. That assertion will likely give more ammunition to Snowden’s critics, who say his actions have jeopardized national security.
Snowden’s name, in fact, was uttered dozens of time on the Senate and House floors in May, according to the congressional record. Many still cannot get his name right—Sens. Richard Burr and Barbara Mikulski, among others, continue to refer to the unlawful disclosures of “Eric” Snowden.
Though most politicians still refuse to give Snowden any credit for reforms or leniency in what his punishment should be, at least one has stepped out to defend the 31-year-old exile.
“Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which includes our phone records, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said this week, while announcing his presidential campaign. “Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it, allow Edward Snowden to come home.”
Snowden is not about to come home anytime soon—but he’s not going to be forgotten, either.
This story has been updated.