I have been following the whole controversy regarding the NSA's wiretapping authorities, Edward Snowden's revelations about how far they extend, and what it all means with some interest, but I haven't had a lot to say about it because a) I find a lot of the details to be very cloudy at the moment and b) its the kind of controversy that is more likely to reinforce what people already believe about government, intelligence gathering, and our foreign and domestic policy than to shift anything substantively.
That said, there is no question that the NSA controversy raises some legitimate and troubling issues about the extent to which the War on Terror and the attendant changes in U.S. law has put us in a place where we have sacrificed more of our rights to privacy and protection from illegal searches than we are genuinely comfortable with.
My general opinion about the current NSA scandal is that what makes it scandalous is not that the Obama administration transgressed U.S. law (unlike the Bush Administration's wiretapping scandal of last decade), but precisely that everything that was done was legal. The fact that the legislative conventional wisdom surrounding the use of these new technologies has coalessced around the idea that government may have fairly expansive and intrusive rights over it should be troubling, particularly given the lack of any real public debate about the topic.
There hasn't been any evidence presented to this point that the NSA has granted itself unrestricted access over any and all electronic communications within the United States (let alone that the authority to do so rested with relatively low-ranking operatives like Snowden). As of yet, evidence suggests that the NSA's actions were well within established U.S. precedent regarding electronic communications, insofar as they could gather metadata on who was calling whom, but required a warrant to actually establish wiretaps and other direct forms of electronic surveillance. (Though, it should be noted, others disagree with this).
With regard to foreign surveillance, most of the revelations have been somewhat overwhelming. As Kevin Drum notes:
Snowden has so far presented no evidence that NSA has abused its statutory powers. He obviously doesn't like NSA's statutory powers, but that's a different thing. At one point, for example, he says that the focus on whether NSA is sweeping up domestic communications is a "distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%." Maybe so, but spying on foreigners is NSA's whole reason for existence.
Indeed. You can object to the idea that we have an agency that does such things, but the agency exists and, at least with regard to the subject of foreign surveillance, is certainly doing nothing outside of the bounds of the intelligence gathering game. There might be legitimate objections to the fact that this game is played in the first place, but all the evidence thus far suggests that the game is being played, byt the NSA at least, outside of the United States, where there is no expectation of constitutional protections.
But beyond the general question of what the NSA can do versus what it should do, there is the question of how accurate the story is to begin with. As Rick Perlstein notes, at least some of what Glen Greenwald has reported has suffered from not accurately portraying the NSA policy. (And it should be noted, Greenwald has responded more vitriolically than substantially in response to Perlstein's assertions.
And then there is Snowden himself. While on the one hand, I think it's fair to say that his assertions should be judged on their merit and not with regard to any personal evaluation of Snowden as a person, that's difficult to do when a lot of the most inflammatory charges come from Snowden with little to no documentary evidence to back it up. Every grandiose claim that he makes thus actually undermines his own credibility. When he claims, without providing proof, that he could unilaterally wiretap the President's phone, it is legitimate to question his credibility. When he makes dark insinuations that he may be arrested, murdered, or disappeared, he sounds more overwrought than persuasive. By making himself so much the center of the story, he puts his credibility as a messenger directly in the frame of inquiry. Edward Snowden is not Daniel Elsberg, and the Obama Administration is not the Nixon Administration. It would have been much better if Greenwald and Snowden has made the story less about the whistleblower and more about the documents themselves and what they can be legitimately made to prove. That story might well have been less dramatic, but it still would have been very troubling and worth public discussion.
None of this is to suggest that the erosion of civil liberties and privacy over the last several decades, and particularly since 9/11, is not a very important topic that should be addressed in the most urgent way. I was on record very strenuously calling for the impeachment of George Bush in the wake of his own wiretapping scandal, but instead Congress decided to post facto render legal what the Bush adminstration had done, thus opening the door for much of what Edward Snowden is now alleging the Obama adminstration is doing. I would be much happier to go back to an earlier status quo with a higher standard of evidence required for any kind of intrusion into the electronic privacy of U.S. citizens (wherever they might be), which is why I say that the scandel is that any of this is legal in the first place. But that being the case, what is needed is a renewed sense of the important of individual liberty and a Congress and court system willing to enact legislation protecting that liberty and ensuring that those liberties aren't abused by an overzealous executive branch. But as long as the legal status quo remains as it is, any executive, whether Bush, or Obama, or whoever comes next, will use it to the maximum degree the other branches of government allow. This is putatively the reason for a strong system of checks and balances in the Constitution, and it's unfortunate that this system has been so undermined and abused in recent years.