Thirty days ago, the Guardian published the first details of the files leaked by Edward Snowden, revealing the bulk collection of data on phone calls by the National Security Agency. In the time since, we've learned far more about that program and the NSA's other surveillance systems. The secret court overseeing the program has cleared a path for more information about its work. Members of Congress have called for more openness. In other words: You're wrong, Politico. Change is happening.
The website is leading this morning with a story wringing its hands over the government's failure to curtail surveillance. Or, more accurately, concern-trolling Snowden's stated desire to see political change in the wake of his revelations. Concern-trolling, for those lucky enough not to know, is when a political argument is made based on insincere concern for its subject. Oh no, Politico frets. We haven't made change on privacy, just as Snowden feared!
The site quotes Snowden: People who hear about the surveillance "won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests." And they haven't! No committees, no new bills, and Senate leaders like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California have brazenly rejected reforms, Politico moans. Ergo: "Edward Snowden's nightmare may be coming true."
This is stupid.
Change takes time. Without looking, try and guess how many days passed between the terror attacks of September 11th and the passage of the Patriot Act. Got a guess in mind? OK.
Forty-five. This is remarkably fast for legislation, of course (see below), but it's still 50 percent longer than the time that's passed since we discovered that the government was collecting phone data. And that's just the phone data! The PRISM revelations came out a month ago tomorrow. The details of NSA collection of email metadata only came out last week.
Politico specifically mentions the Church Committee, impanelled to review the government's surveillance in the wake of revelations during the 1970s. That committee was formed years after the initial revelations.
When has Congress moved quickly on anything recently? The six-month anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary passed last month, without a single new piece of legislation passed at the federal level. Immigration reform, a key priority among many Republicans following the shellacking of Mitt Romney last year, has only passed one chamber of Congress. As the sadly accurate joke goes, the only thing that Congress moves quickly on these days is naming post offices.
And, yes, many elected officials will be loathe to demand reforms to programs that they themselves helped enact. Dianne Feinstein is nearly as complicit in this surveillance as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Of course she'll defend it. But, besides:
Members of Congress have called for change. As we detailed earlier this week, seven senators have introduced legislation that would demand the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) release information about its authorization of the surveillance systems. Two members of the House have done the same. Sixteen members of Congress filed an amicus brief in support of an ACLU effort to do the same.
The reason the focus is on the FISC, incidentally, is because members of Congress feel as though they don't have enough information about the programs. Is this perhaps an attempt to get political cover for reversing themselves? Perhaps. But it's still a step toward new legislation.
That secret court is slightly less secret. The judges that sit on the FISC have shown an increasing willingness to reveal details of how and why they allowed the surveillance that exists. In a surprise decision last month, the court determined that a key ruling could be released under a Freedom of Information Act request. It has unsealed aspects of a ruling against Yahoo and asked the Department of Justice to argue why Google and Facebook shouldn't be allowed to report on the number of times they get secret data requests.
Part of this may very well be an effort to respond to the idea that the court acts as a rubber stamp for the government. Regardless of motivation, it's insight that didn't exist a month ago today.
People are taking to streets. On July 4th, dozens of rallies across the country, including one with at least a thousand people in New York City, demanded reforms from the government on these issues. It is true that polling still shows broad support for the programs, but there are now public demonstrations from those who don't. While we're not naive enough to think that hundreds of people marching in the streets is enough to effect change in Washington, it's hard not to think that this is the sort of outcry Snowden sought.
The NSA revelations have slowed or halted expansions of some legislation. As Carl Franzen noted at the Verge last month, a much-debated Congressional bill on enhanced cybersecurity measures stalled in the wake of the NSA revelations. "One former NSA lawyer went so far as to tell Bloomberg that the issue of cyber security has 'become a radioactive fallout zone for a while in terms of new legislation,'" Franzen writes.
The program has been reined in by revelations before. As Slate's Will Saletan points out, a leak led to a 2005 article in The New York Times that then led to a 2006 briefing that, later that year, prompted the FISC to trim the NSA's ability to collect data. This was change made largely in the dark, but it was change. And it took longer than 30 days.
Politico disagrees with itself on page two of its article. "[P]rivacy advocates and intelligence community critics say they feel that Snowden has, in fact, changed the game," they write. Oh, also, that quote from Snowden wasn't the only thing he said. He told Greenwald that he wanted to "spark a debate," as Politico notes with a shrug.
They maybe could have written a story about that.
Photo: Protestors march in New York on July 4th.