If the war on terror is a war of ideas—between, say, the forces of liberal democracy and militant Islamists hellbent on building a new caliphate—then so is the war over the war on terror. One side maintains that if Americans are to protect themselves against shadowy evildoers, they need to give their government wide authority to monitor the communications of potential enemies, even if that means that millions of citizens who are guilty of no crime might at some point be subject to some form of surveillance. The other argues that the national security bureaucracy has grown far too powerful, and that it routinely misleads the elected officials charged with overseeing it. Until recently, there was no doubt that the former camp was winning. But since 2013, when Edward Snowden first shared details of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance efforts with a small handful of journalists, including scathing critics of America’s national security apparatus like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the politics of surveillance have irrevocably changed. Snowden and his ideological allies now have the upper hand.
On Sunday, Hollywood feted Citizenfour, a documentary feature that portrays Snowden as an earnest patriot. Then Snowden joined Poitras, the director of the film, and Greenwald for a Reddit AMA, during which the former NSA contractor said his only regret about disclosing various national security secrets was that he hadn’t done it sooner. Later this year, director Oliver Stone will release a fictionalized portrait of Snowden that will no doubt further burnish his legend.
Of course, Snowden’s brand of guerrilla civil libertarianism hasn’t been embraced by everyone. As recently as last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 63 percent of Americans said they were willing to sacrifice privacy to give the federal government stronger surveillance powers. Yet 32 percent opposed giving up privacy in the name of greater security, a pretty substantial minority. Among adults younger than 30, meanwhile, the split was a tight 48 to 47 percent, with a slight edge to the pro-surveillance camp. In a similar vein, a Pew survey from January 2014 found that 57 percent of younger-than-30 adults felt that the Snowden revelations did more good than harm.
So how is that the Snowdenites are winning? They’re winning because they don’t actually need a majority of the electorate to embrace their position in order to achieve their goals. They merely need a vocal, well-organized minority. For example, the NSA needs people with the technical skills to make their vast surveillance apparatus work. Not shockingly, these people are often young, tech-savvy men with an anti-authoritarian streak, many of whom might identify with Snowden. The result is that the NSA has been forced to switch up its recruitment tactics. Because the agency is now more skeptical of younger hackers with little in the way of formal education, it has renewed an emphasis on recruiting graduates of schools that produce large numbers of military recruits, whom it perceives as more reliable.
To understand how a political minority can prove politically effective, consider the ongoing debate over imposing new federal regulations on guns. Though large numbers of Americans favor new restrictions on gun rights, the “intensity” of those who oppose them tends to win out. Yet intensity doesn’t mean much if it can’t be channeled into effective political action, as the University of Maryland political scientist David Karol has observed. For Karol, a key reason that gun-rights activists are so politically effective is that gun owners engage in group activities that strengthen their social bonds, like hunting and attending gun shows, as a matter of course. This makes it easier for gun advocates to reach their target audience, and it also means that when gun owners get together, they are more likely to pass along political information, like the latest outrage perpetrated by federal gun-grabbers or which primary candidate is a squish on the Second Amendment. Karol compares the gun-rights movement to other social movements, like those for alcohol prohibition, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and gay rights, which “piggy-backed on pre-existing social organizations and communities,” meaning they didn’t have to foster these connections in the first place. Gun-control advocates aren’t united by their hobbies or their cultural proclivities in the same way, so they’re inevitably harder to organize.
Surveillance skeptics have a similar edge over surveillance defenders. No, not all of Snowden’s biggest fans in America are affluent, well-educated libertarian technophiles who spend much of their spare time socializing on lesser-known corners of the Web. But these groups certainly overlap. Just as hunting and target shooting are ways that older gun owners cement social bonds, gaming and obsessively following Reddit could serve much the same function among young surveillance skeptics. Libertarian Republicans like Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have recognized the growing power of this constituency, and they cater to it by regularly addressing libertarian groups and pushing for surveillance reform. Though surveillance skeptics are in the minority among Republican lawmakers, they’re not easily dismissed. At the same time, Democrats like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich press the civil libertarian case on their side of the aisle.
But it gets worse for the defenders of surveillance authority. The Snowden revelations didn’t just make working for the NSA less attractive. As Julian Sanchez, a privacy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute has explained, the revelations badly embarrassed major U.S. technology companies, particularly those that have substantial operations outside of the country. Suddenly the notion that Google and Facebook were essentially arms of the U.S. government seemed like more than a paranoid fantasy, particularly to consumers in Europe and Asia already inclined toward anti-Americanism. Before the revelations, these companies could work closely with the U.S. government to facilitate its surveillance efforts without ever being held to account. Even if they objected to getting pushed around by Uncle Sam behind closed doors, they had little incentive to make a stink about it, as doing so could jeopardize their business by raising suspicions. After the revelations, the international reputation of U.S. tech giants took a hit, and they had little choice but to push back forcefully and to ally themselves with civil liberties groups. Suddenly you had a deep-pocketed special interest group (Silicon Valley, to put it crudely) working hand in glove with civil-liberties activists in defense of their core economic interests. This is very similar to the alliance that helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012, before the Snowden revelations, and there’s no reason to believe it’s going to fade away
None of this is to suggest that the Snowdenites will keep winning forever. The rise of ISIS might strengthen the hand of those who call for more surveillance authority, and a future terror attack could very well do the same. Moreover, while surveillance skeptics can vocally oppose expansions of surveillance authority, it’s not clear they have the political muscle to roll it back. In the months to come, Congress will debate extending the Patriot Act’s Section 215 authority, which the Obama administration cites as the legal basis for the bulk collection of telephone metadata. The FBI is lobbying hard for an extension, and it has plenty of supporters on Capitol Hill, including Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrats like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The outcome of this debate will test the strength and the seriousness of civil libertarians in Congress. What’s clear is that surveillance defenders now face formidable opposition, and Edward Snowden deserves much of the credit and the blame.
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