Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on top secret United States government surveillance programs and arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport about one month ago. He is set to leave the transit zone where he has been living just as a critical vote in Congress on NSA surveillance is scheduled to take place today.
Multiple news outlets are reporting that Russia’s Federal Migration Service has issued provisional documents that indicate his request for temporary asylum is being reviewed. The documents will allow him to leave the “sterile zone.”
Snowden will meet a lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, who will hand him the papers, and then he will be free to leave.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Snowden is considering becoming a permanent resident in Russia. He has been offered asylum by Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua but how he would get there is the key issue because flight paths cross zones, which the United States would likely claim the authority to intercept his flight.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the effect of his whistleblowing has led to a major House vote being scheduled on an amendment that addresses unchecked NSA surveillance.
Introduced by Republican Representative Justin Amash and Democratic Representative John Conyers (both from the state of Michigan), it would restrict the “federal government’s ability under the Patriot Act to collect information on Americans who are not connected to an ongoing investigation. The bill also requires that secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court opinions be made available to Congress and summaries of the opinions be made available to the public,” according to the amendment’s sponsors.
A press release indicating at least thirty members of the House support the amendment contends the Limiting Internet and Blanket Electronic Review of Telecommunications and Email Act (LIBERT-E Act) imposes reasonable limits on the federal government’s surveillance.” It “puts some teeth into the FISA court’s determination of whether records the government wants are actually relevant to an investigation, and “it also makes sure that innocent Americans’ information isn’t needlessly swept up into a government database” by attempting to prohibit the “type of government dragnet that the leaked Verizon order revealed.”
President Barack Obama, however, opposes this effort to curtail the power of the NSA. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said, “We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counter-terrorism tools.” And, “His blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. We urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.” (Notice the White House does not mention the name of the Democratic Representative who also introduced the amendment, misrepresenting the bipartisan support for this amendment.)
NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander also spent yesterday holding emergency “top secret” meetings with Republicans and Democrats to convince them not to restrict the power of the NSA to conduct surveillance that would broadly sweep up Americans’ communications.
Amash, Conyers and the other members of Congress, who decided to co-sponsor this amendment, are doing what should be done in response to what Snowden revealed.
As Conyers said in a statement issued on Snowden’s national security leaks:
It is unfortunate that so much of Congress and the media’s focus is on the whereabouts of Edward Snowden. We should focus our time and attention on ensuring that law-abiding Americans are not unnecessarily subject to intrusive surveillance; making sure our media organizations are not targeted merely for informing the public; closing Guantanamo and releasing those individuals who pose us no harm; and demanding that legal safeguards are in place with respect to our government’s shortsighted use of drones. These are the overriding, critical issues facing the Congress, not the whereabouts or motives of Edward Snowden.
Revelations over the last several weeks by Edward Snowden and others make clear that our nation is at a crossroads. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ exerts severe and undue pressure on our privacy, due process, and respect for a free press. Congress must choose how to respond, not to Edward Snowden, but to the strain that this never-ending war has placed on our principles and our laws.
Focusing on “intrusive surveillance” would seem to be what the American people desire, as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates, “Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the NSA programs are infringing on some Americans’ privacy rights, and about half see those programs as encroaching on their own privacy.”
“Most of those who see the programs as compromising privacy say the intrusions are unjustified,” the Post reports.
If this Wall Street Journal/NBC poll is any indication, many Americans do not really know who helped create the political climate where members of Congress are finally questioning heads of intelligence agencies and assessing secret surveillance programs and whether they improperly violate privacy. It would seem that whatever information the majority has heard makes him seem like an arrogant leaker who foolishly fled to China and then Russia and recklessly allowed these two rival countries of the US access to sensitive state secrets related to US surveillance programs. Naturally, one would not have a good view of Snowden is this is what they were told happened.
The reality is, as Senator Ron Wyden said in a speech at an event put on by the Center for American Progress yesterday, the actions by Congress members are a part of a “march to a real debate” on surveillance that this country would not have had seven or eight weeks ago.
To further understand how critical it is that Congress be, at minimum, reviewing and questioning the surveillance programs, here’s this column by Alexander Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he concisely presents the situation Americans face:
The NSA’s endgame can be seen in the legal justification it offers for the program now being debated by Congress. The NSA argues that its collection of every American’s phone records is constitutional because the agency stores the records in a lockbox and looks at the records only if and when it has a reason to search them. In other words, it claims that the constitution is not concerned with the acquisition of our sensitive data, only with the later searching of it.
This is an extremely dangerous argument. For two centuries, American courts have taken the view that the constitution is concerned with the government’s initial intrusion upon privacy, and not only with the later uses to which the government puts the information it has collected. That’s why it is unconstitutional for the government, without a warrant, to seize your journal even if it never reads it; to record your phone call even if it never listens to it; or to videotape your bedroom activities even if it never presses play.
Wherever Snowden ends up living temporarily or permanently or however Americans view him is virtually insignificant when considering what was revealed and how necessary it is to begin dismantling key aspects of the massive surveillance state that has arisen in the years since the September 11th attacks.
Snowden deserves credit for bringing the country to this moment, but if one cannot admit he has played a constructive role in bringing about a debate that—despite what the Obama administration may claim—the president never wanted to have, the least one can do is reject this canard that the NSA must hoard all data from Americans’ communications to keep America safe.