Today marks the second anniversary of The Guardian’s first blockbuster story derived from files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—launching what would become an unprecedented deluge of disclosures about the scope and scale of communications surveillance by American intelligence agencies. So it seems appropriate that this week saw not only the passage of the USA Freedom Act, but also the approval in the House of several privacy-protective appropriations amendments, about which more momentarily. Snowden himself takes a quick victory lap in a New York Times editorial reflecting on the consequences of his disclosures, (very much in line with his remarks during our interview at the inaugural Cato Surveillance Conference):
Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.
Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.
Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.
He’s referring here to last month’s appellate court ruling against the notorious telephone records dragnet, followed this week by passage of the USA Freedom Act. That law should bar bulk collection not only under §215 of the Patriot Act, the basis of the phone program, but also under §214—the “pen register” provision previously used to vacuum up international Internet metadata—and National Security Letters, which can be issued by senior FBI officials without judicial approval. Since the latter two authorities are permanent, they would not have been affected by what quite a few lazy reporters described as “the expiration of the Patriot Act,” though in fact only about 2 percent of the law’s provisions were actually due to sunset. While the law is far from ideal, incidentally, I think it does constitute more robust reform than many libertarians fear, for reasons I lay out in this piece at Motherboard and this blog post at Just Security. It will, of course, be necessary to vigilantly watch for efforts to water down the law’s protection—something the public is finally at least somewhat empowered to do by a transparency provision requiring significant legal interpretations by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to be published in unclassfied form.