If we are to believe the same set of intelligence officials who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to lie in order to protect the secrecy of their nefarious surveillance activities, the people of the United States are currently living—for the first time in the better part of a decade—without the federal government collecting information about every e-mail they send and every phone call they make. It has been raining for the past three days here in New York, but with the Patriot Act at least temporarily expired, each morning has been a little beautiful.
Whatever happens today in the Senate, whether or not Congress passes the White House–backed USA Freedom Act that has been rightly dubbed “milquetoast” by the Intercept’s Dan Froomkin, it is worth pausing to consider how far things have moved in the almost exactly two years since Edward Snowden released to their proper owners documents showing that the National Security Agency had been partnering with private corporations to scoop up and store unprecedented amounts of data related to Americans’ private communications.
In The Nation’s first issue to go to press after the Snowden leaks, an assortment of writers and lawyers picked apart what the documents revealed. Marcy Wheeler contextualized the news in the history of surveillance in the post-9/11 era, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier unpacked the mystique around the term “metadata,” and demonstrated the totalitarian potential in harboring vast amounts of it in semi-permanent storage facilities. Yet the most penetrating assessment came, unsurprisingly, from the since-silenced pen of Jonathan Schell, who wrote in “The Surveillance Net”:
What should Americans do when all official channels are unresponsive or dysfunctional? Are we, as people used to say, in a revolutionary situation? Shall we man the barricades? The situation is a little more peculiar than that. There is a revolution afoot, but it is not one in the streets; it is one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land. That this insurrection against the constitutional order by officials sworn to uphold it includes legal opinions and legislation only makes it the more radical and dangerous. In other words, the government is in stealthy insurrection against the letter and the spirit of the law.
What’s needed is counterrevolution—an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded. Edward Snowden, for one, knew what to do. He saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of brining it back into line is the public. He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name…. He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out whether he was right.