In an opinion released on Friday, the secret court that authorizes NSA surveillance ordered certain decisions be declassified in order to "contribute to an informed debate." Which makes it all but official: everyone agrees the Edward Snowden leaks were useful.
The court — officially, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — released its decision in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. They pertain to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the section of the legislation used to authorize the bulk collection of telephone metadata records. That collection was one of the first Snowden revelations in early June, and has subsequently come under heavy attack on Capitol Hill. The FISC gave the government until October 4 to release (after redactions) a large subset of the court's decisions related to the records collection.
But it's the rationale the court offered that's interesting.
The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215. Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate.
In other words: This is a debate worth having. And so the court joins a growing list of perhaps-unexpected parties that have expressed appreciation for the debate that Snowden kicked off.
When that first Snowden leak occurred, the White House was quick to "welcome" the debate that might ensue. Of course, the administration couldn't yet predict its scale. During his press conference at the beginning of last month, Obama again acknowledged the value of the conversation, even as he struggled to contain the fall-out.
American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness, because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation; it's the way we do it, with open debate and democratic process.
That he hadn't intended to have that debate is beside the point. Obama, however sincerely, had to admit that it was of value.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
Speaking before a trade group on Thursday, the man primarily responsible for implementing the surveillance programs acknowledged the value of the pressure he's faced. The Los Angeles Times reports:
"I think it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen," Clapper told a defense and intelligence contractor trade group. "If there's a good side to this, maybe that's it."
A number of members of Congress have praised the debate, several of whom (like Ron Wyden of Oregon) tried to have a muffled debate while the legislature was considering their renewal.
But the most obvious demonstration of Congress' enthusiasm about the debate is that Congress is actually introducing and debating amendments to the legislation used to authorize the surveillance. In July, the House came uncomfortably close to revoking funding for the Section 215 data collection after an extended period of, yes, debate.
Meaning that debate has been embraced by all three branches of government, all three overseers of the NSA's programs — judicial, executive, and legislative. Good thing, too, given that the release of the FISC's rulings and any future reports on the Snowden documents ensure that the debate will continue for some time to come.