Edward Snowden Is Worried People Will Forget About Edward Snowden

The standard-bearer for spy-agency reform fears NSA fatigue is leading to a culture of complacency.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Dustin Volz
Aug. 13, 2014, 11:01 a.m.

At the bot­tom of an ex­pans­ive pro­file of him in Wired magazine pub­lished on­line Wed­nes­day, Ed­ward Snowden dis­closed one of his biggest fears.

What if, gradu­ally, people are grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to mass gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance?

The fu­git­ive leak­er, who more than a year ago aired the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s dirty sur­veil­lance laun­dry to a couple of hand-picked journ­al­ists, is wor­ried that pub­lic agit­a­tion about the sweep­ing scope of bulk data col­lec­tion is wan­ing with time—and with it, the de­sire to re­form the gov­ern­ment’s spy agen­cies.

As journ­al­ist James Bam­ford, who spent three days in Mo­scow with the 31-year-old com­puter tech­ni­cian, writes:

An­oth­er con­cern for Snowden is what he calls NSA fa­tigue—the pub­lic be­com­ing numb to dis­clos­ures of mass sur­veil­lance, just as it be­comes in­ured to news of battle deaths dur­ing a war. “One death is a tragedy, and a mil­lion is a stat­ist­ic,” he says, mord­antly quot­ing Stal­in. “Just as the vi­ol­a­tion of An­gela Merkel’s rights is a massive scan­dal and the vi­ol­a­tion of 80 mil­lion Ger­mans is a non­story.” Nor is he op­tim­ist­ic that the next elec­tion will bring any mean­ing­ful re­form.

Is the pres­sure for NSA re­form eas­ing? It has been 14 months since Snowden met with journ­al­ists Glenn Gre­en­wald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong to hand over a treas­ure trove of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments he down­loaded while work­ing for Booz Al­len Hamilton in Hawaii. And des­pite pledges from Pres­id­ent Obama last Janu­ary that the NSA would un­der­go changes and re­gain the pub­lic’s trust—if Con­gress sent him an ap­pro­pri­ate re­form pack­age—no such bills have since been signed in­to law.

Shortly after an ini­tial wave of neg­at­ive back­lash that greeted Snowden when his leaks first sur­faced in June 2013, the pub­lic began clam­or­ing for re­form, as a clear­er por­trait of the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of do­mest­ic phone metadata—the time stamps, loc­a­tion, and num­bers as­so­ci­ated with a call but not its ac­tu­al con­tents—began to emerge. As a res­ult, the House nearly de­fun­ded the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams in Ju­ly 2013, when an amend­ment backed by Reps. Justin Amash and John Con­yers fell just 12 votes short of passing.

That sud­den re­buke of the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies was seen at the time as a fore­bod­ing omen of what was ahead, but it wasn’t un­til May of this year that the House passed a watered-down ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act, which tech com­pan­ies and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates de­rided as an in­suf­fi­cient and loop­hole-laden an­swer to NSA spy­ing.

But last month, Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy in­tro­duced a beefed-up ver­sion of the Free­dom Act, which has been re­ceived warmly by most NSA crit­ics and en­dorsed by the White House. The meas­ure would bar the NSA from col­lect­ing Amer­ic­an phone re­cords in bulk and in­stead re­quire phone com­pan­ies to store the data, which the gov­ern­ment can re­quest on an as-needed basis. It spe­cifies that the NSA can’t gath­er all data from broad “tar­gets” such as a par­tic­u­lar ser­vice pro­vider or zip code, and cre­ates a pan­el of spe­cial ad­voc­ates to sup­port pri­vacy rights be­fore the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, among oth­er re­forms.

Des­pite the bill’s back­ing, it still faces hurdles from de­fense hawks like Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein and pri­vacy zealots like Sen. Ron Wyden, who ar­gue that it still doesn’t go far enough. It re­mains un­clear wheth­er the Sen­ate will find time after its Au­gust re­cess to get to sur­veil­lance re­form in its short, elec­tion-year cal­en­dar.

Mean­while, Snowden and his con­fid­ants are work­ing to keep gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance in the news and to pre­vent “NSA fa­tigue.” As Gre­en­wald and oth­ers con­tin­ue to pub­lish a steady drip of rev­el­a­tions about the NSA and oth­er spy agen­cies, Snowden is cash­ing in on his no­tori­ety with ad­di­tion­al pub­li­city.

The fu­git­ive re­mains elu­sive to U.S. au­thor­it­ies, who want him to come home to face es­pi­on­age charges. But if 2013 saw Snowden dash­ing around the globe in search of refuge from U.S. au­thor­it­ies, 2014 has been a year of stead­ily in­creas­ing will­ing­ness to draw at­ten­tion, either by speak­ing at events via Skype or Google Hangouts or grant­ing ac­cess to journ­al­ists.

In the past few months, NBC’s Bri­an Wil­li­ams, The Guard­i­an, and now Wired have sat down for ex­tens­ive in­ter­views with Snowden. Each in­ter­view has at­trac­ted broad in­terest and dis­cus­sion, but not just be­cause Snowden is an in­ter­na­tion­ally known fu­git­ive. In all of them, Snowden has dropped new de­tails about the NSA sur­veil­lance prac­tices or his time work­ing as a con­tract­or with Booz Al­len, adding fresh in­gredi­ents to a de­bate that is now more than a year old.

Mean­while, as Snowden at­tempts to re­main rel­ev­ant—Wired‘s cov­er photo finds hims draped in an Amer­ic­an flag, which is in­furi­at­ing some of his de­tract­ors—he hedges his bets by con­tinu­ing to ar­gue that tech­no­logy, and not polit­ics, may be the best av­en­ue to sur­veil­lance re­form.

“We have the means and we have the tech­no­logy to end mass sur­veil­lance without any le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion at all, without any policy changes,” Snowden told Wired. “By ba­sic­ally ad­opt­ing changes like mak­ing en­cryp­tion a uni­ver­sal stand­ard—where all com­mu­nic­a­tions are en­cryp­ted by de­fault—we can end mass sur­veil­lance not just in the United States but around the world.”

What We're Following See More »
NRA Chief: Leftist Protesters Are Paid
1 days ago
Trump Still on Campaign Rhetoric
1 days ago
Trump Rails On Obamacare
1 days ago

After spending a few minutes re-litigating the Democratic primary, Donald Trump turned his focus to Obamacare. “I inherited a mess, believe me. We also inherited a failed healthcare law that threatens our medical system with absolute and total catastrophe” he said. “I’ve been watching and nobody says it, but Obamacare doesn’t work.” He finished, "so we're going to repeal and replace Obamacare."

Trump Goes After The Media
1 days ago

Donald Trump lobbed his first attack at the “dishonest media” about a minute into his speech, saying that the media would not appropriately cover the standing ovation that he received. “We are fighting the fake news,” he said, before doubling down on his previous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people." However, he made a distinction, saying that he doesn't think all media is the enemy, just the "fake news."

Report: Trump Asked FBI to Deny Russia Stories
1 days ago

"The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN. But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.