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Snowden leaks prompt talk of constraint on NSA practices – Traitor? He’s a National Hero!

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Edward Snowden - National Hero

Snowden – a traitor to the United States?

The United States wants to label Edward Snowden a “spy” and “traitor” for revealing secret NSA practices to the American public (how’s that for a spy vs. spy misnomer – an American citizen prosecuted for releasing secrets to *Americans*). The revealing leaks from Snowden regarding the unscrupulous data collection practices of the National Security Agency prompted a U.S. scramble to plug the leaks and stem the tide of information that the Guardian was releasing to the public. As a result of Snowden’s bold disclosures (and the Guardian who bravely published them), the White House announced a series of proposed reforms meant to increase the transparency of, and the constraints on, the NSA.

While President Obama admitted that the Snowden leaks contributed to the White House’s move to take a more careful look at the NSA’s practices, he stopped short of proclaiming Snowden’s revelations were a requirement for any proposed changes, nor did he feel Snowden’s disclosures were justified, arguing that “we would have gotten to the same place eventually.”  President Obama told reporters,

“There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board. But I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. I called for a thorough review of our operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. My preference, and I think the American peoples’ preferences would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws.”

Sorry Mr. President, but I call BS.

The American people would have preferred a lawful, orderly check of the NSA’s practices and in fact, we demanded it –and were ignored. Did you forget that in July 2013 an amendment from Rep. Just Amash, which aimed to stop the NSA’s collection of phone records, was promptly squashed? The debate barely began to sizzle before it was snuffed out. The NSA activities that the public decried have gone unchecked for many years and despite voluminous public outcry, there was little public debate. To make matters worse, when the NSA was called to the table after Snowden’s revelations, they simply lied about their practices, denying that there was even a problem, or refused to give Congress the requested information, arguing that doing so would “violate the privacy of those whose information was collected”. No public debate here – not even close.

President Obama stated that “those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live up to our highest ideals.” I say Snowden magnified those voices many fold and would argue that Snowden accomplished what others tried but failed to accomplish – he *forced* the conversation to the forefront where it had to  be taken seriously.

I’m not the only one that feels Snowden did the right thing.  The Washington Post credits Snowden with triggering the White House’s sudden change in heart:

“If this conversation, and these reforms, are as positive for the country as Obama says they are, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Snowden did the country a real service — even if the White House can’t abide crediting him with it.”

But let’s give President Obama his just due. He did put forth one important truth:

“What makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it…”

The proposed White House changes, intended to “help restore public confidence”, include reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, both of which, with a little bit of twisting and turning to make a square peg fit a round hole, allow current NSA practices to remain under a legal umbrella. The White House’s proposed reforms are sketchy thus far, with room for plenty of revisions, but include changes to FISA courts to ensure that the court’s decisions are checked by someone other than five guys in a closet. The proposed changes also ask for the declassification of key NSA documents, the formation of “a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies” and a website to serve “as the hub for further transparency”. Oh yeah, radical stuff [sarcasm].

Granted, I don’t feel the proposed White House changes are enough and suspect that future government debates on the subject will likely wander away from the real problem and drift towards the argument that “although the possibility of abuse is there, the Feds know how to restrain themselves”. Already the battle lines have been drawn. Republican John Boehner, who apparently feels the destruction of the Republican party is not complete, has publicly stated his official position as thus:

“Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program. That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it. Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face.”

It should be apparent to all that the two parties are going to fight each other tooth and nail and that any proposed changes will certainly be watered down before they reach law.

Still, the White House proposals have the potential to spark additional public debate over the NSA’s unchecked data collection practices. And if that spark is indeed ignited, guess who “sparked the spark”?

Spy? Traitor? It took guys like Edward Snowden to prompt radical change in our country over 200 years ago. He should be (and I’m guessing eventually will be) labelled a National Hero.

What we learned from the Snowden leaks (so far)

On June 5, Glenn Greenwald publishes an article in the Guardian revealing that the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of US Verizon customers in bulk. we learnt the government can collect the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as information about the duration and the location of parties involved in the conversation. From these unique identifiers – known as a call’s “metadata” – the government can effectively track down the caller.

The Guardian reports that the British intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at the G20 Summit in 2009. As more revelations appeared about the symbiotic relationship between the GCHQ and the NSA, it became increasingly apparent that the two organizations had conducted extensive surveillance on foreign countries and their leaders.

The Guardian details “XKeyscore,” a wide-reaching program that allows analysts to search through expansive databases of user data. The secretive nature of the program, which was authorized in secret proceedings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), drew attention to the massive volume of information at the NSA’s disposal.

he Washington Post revealed NSA internal audit showing thousands of privacy violations. According to the report, the agency broke its own internal regulations 2,776 times between March 2011 and March 2012.

The New York Times reports that the NSA has been using public social media data to figure out who associates with whom (both in person and digitally) and where social media users are located. This surveillance began in November 2010 after the NSA began allowing the analysis of phone calls and email logins, according to the report. On Oct. 14, The Washington Post broke the story that the NSA has also been gathering users’ e-mail and chat address books to help fill in information about social networks.

The Guardian revealed the NSA has targeted the Tor network, a web browser that anyonymizes user activity. While the core security of the network has remained in place, according to The Guardian, the NSA has made it a priority to get through the network’s encryption, which afford users their privacy.

A top secret May 2010 report reveals that the United States monitored “diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability.” The NSA’s operatives accomplished this by exploiting “a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network.

Update September 18, 2016 – The Snowden Reforms

Three years after this article was first published, here are the reforms directly triggered by Snowden’s actions – and let’s be reasonable and call them what they are – The Snowden Reforms.  As I stated three years ago, Edward Snowden is no traitor – he’s a hero.

  1. The NSA now publishes an annual transparency report.
  2. NSA’s collection of American’s phone records has stopped (data is still collected but held by the phone companies).
  3. It is now routine for lawyers to argue cases for privacy before the secret courts that authorize intelligence gathering.
  4. Privacy rules are required for for surveillance programs that affect foreigners outside the United States.
  5. Secret programs such as PRISM will now be debatable when they come up for review in 2017.
Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post, White House, Huffington Post, CNN