The Snowden effect, a definition:
Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.
Meaning: there’s what Snowden himself revealed by releasing secrets and talking to the press. But beyond this, there is what he set in motion by taking that action. Congress and other governments begin talking in public about things they had previously kept hidden. Companies have to explain some of their dealings with the state. Journalists who were not a party to the transaction with Snowden start digging and adding background. Debates spring to life that had been necessary but missing before the leaks. The result is that we know much more about the surveillance state than we did before. Some of the opacity around it lifts. This is the Snowden effect.
It is good for public knowledge. And public knowledge is supposed to be what a free press and open debate are all about.
Examples: (updated several times after July 5)
1. As reported on July 4:
Days after President François Hollande sternly told the United States to stop spying on its allies, the newspaper Le Monde disclosed on Thursday that France has its own large program of data collection, which sweeps up nearly all the data transmissions, including telephone calls, e-mails and social media activity, that come in and out of France. (Le Monde.)
2. On July 3, Reuters reported on the “long history of close cooperation between technology companies and the intelligence community.”
Former U.S. officials and intelligence sources say the collaboration between the tech industry and spy agencies is both broader and deeper than most people realize, dating back to the formative years of Silicon Valley itself.
A similar story ran in the New York Times on June 19. It told of “the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the [NSA] and the degree to which they are now in the same business.”
3. In a superb story by four reporters on June 15, the Associated Press expanded the frame:
The revelation of Prism this month by the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers has touched off the latest round in a decade-long debate over what limits to impose on government eavesdropping, which the Obama administration says is essential to keep the nation safe.
But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.
4. Expanding the frame in a different way, the McClatchy Washington bureau reported on the Obama Administration’s extremely aggressive crackdown on leaks: (June 20)
President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide.
“This has gotten scant public attention; let’s remedy that.” So goes the Snowden effect. McClatchy followed up on its original report with more scrutiny of the Insider Threat program on July 9.
5. On June 15 Bloomberg reported that “thousands of technology, finance and manufacturing companies are working closely with U.S. national security agencies, providing sensitive information and in return receiving benefits that include access to classified intelligence.”
These programs, whose participants are known as trusted partners, extend far beyond what was revealed by Edward Snowden, a computer technician who did work for the National Security Agency.
6. Two days ago, a report in the New York Times explained how Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall are “trying to force intelligence officials to provide answers for the public record” about matters already familiar to them from secret briefings given to Congress. The key phrase is “answers for the public record.” That is the core of the Snowden effect. (More on this.)
7. On June 25, the National Security Agency had to take down two fact sheets it had posted online after Wyden and Udall complained that they contained misinformation. The documents were themselves an example of the Snowden effect, as Politico reported:
The documents, still available here, were published in the wake of revelations about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs. They sought to highlight the safeguards the NSA uses to make sure American communications aren’t caught up in its surveillance — or if they are, what the NSA does to remove identifying information about U.S. citizens.
In other words, the NSA – often called the most secretive agency in the government – felt it had to explain itself. This is good for public knowledge. Two U.S. Senators then fact checked the NSA, which is even better.
8. Jack Shafer of Reuters predicted the Snowden effect in his June 8 column. “This will now fuel new cycles of reporting, leaks and scoops — and another, and another — as new sources are cultivated and reportorial scraps gathering mold in journalists’ notebooks gain new relevance and help break stories.” He was right.
9. Did you know that the United States Postal Service “computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year?” I did not. The New York Times reported on it July 3rd. As Ethan Zuckerman notes, the Smoking Gun website had the story on June 7 but few saw it. The Snowden effect works like that. It widens the circle of people who know, even if the knowledge had been available before.
10. On the front page of the New York Times, Scott Shane reported on a kind a “parallel Supreme Court,” FISA, making new and consequential law in secret. This brought a discussion that had taken place on legal blogs to a much wider public. The Wall Street Journal followed up the next day with more details on a secret interpretation of the law. And on July 15, Adam Liptak of the Times added more with his Double Secret Surveillance.
A final note: The Snowden effect is far more important than the Snowden saga, meaning: the story of what happens to him as the United States pursues his capture and arrest, plus what comes out about his background and motivations. But I would not call his personal story a “distraction” from the real story. That’s not right. Who he is, what kind of access he had, why he did what he did, and even the arguments about whether he’s a disloyal creep or a profile in courage are inescapably part of the larger story and the public debate it has triggered. (Read Matt Cooper of National Journal on this issue.) You can’t wish for more public attention to the surveillance state and then scoff at one of the means by which people come to the larger story, which is his story. But I repeat what I said: the Snowden effect is ultimately more important than the Snowden saga.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
A timeline of all the major revelations from the Snowden files at the Al Jazeera America site.
On June 17, President Obama said he wanted a “national conversation” on the NSA’s secret collection of data. Slowly, haltingly, and with great difficulty he is getting just that– because of the Snowden effect.
Whether he likes it or not, this is the ‘national conversation’ that the president said he wanted. Edward Snowden, world traveler, international man of luggage, made it impossible to avoid.
July 9: The Snowden effect is well captured in the public hearings before the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The hearings are one of Obama’s responses to the sense of public alarm created by Snowden’s original revelations. They are starting to produce:
A former federal judge who granted government surveillance requests has broken ranks to criticise the system of secret courts as unfit for purpose in the wake of recent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
July 10: Scott Shane of the New York Times reports directly on the Snowden effect:
It is still unclear whether Mr. Snowden, the 30-year-old former N.S.A. contractor now holed up at a Moscow airport, will escape punishment. But he has succeeded in opening the government spying’s trade-offs between civil liberties and security to the broadest and best-informed public debate in many years, even as intelligence officials are horrified at the exposure of their methods and targets.
Underneath all this is a troubling question: can there even be an informed public and thus “consent of the governed” for the national security state? Or have we in effect done away with those concepts? This essay by Will Wilkinson in the Economist is the best thing I have read on that subject:
You see, democracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security, and it is simply too dangerous to leave the question of this balance to the democratic public. Open deliberation over the appropriate balance would require saying something concrete about threats to public safety, and also about the means by which those threats might be checked. But revealing such information would only empower America’s enemies and endanger American lives. Therefore, this is a discussion Americans can’t afford to have.
This post was chewed over by a panel of observers on MSNBC: Debating the Snowden Effect.
Yahoo is fighting for the right to reveal its struggle with the NSA over demands that the company said it resisted. The court documents are currently secret.
In a rare legal move, Yahoo is asking a secretive U.S. surveillance court to let the public see its arguments in a 2008 case that played an important role in persuading tech companies to cooperate with a controversial government data-gathering effort.
“Let the public see its arguments.” That’s the Snowden effect. So is this: Microsoft asks the Attorney General for permission “to share publicly more complete information about how we handle national security requests for customer information.”
July 16: Update on Yahoo’s fight to force “public disclosure of the company’s attempts to distance itself from the NSA’s Prism program.”
July 17: The Snowden effect visits Congress and restores bipartisanship:
Top Obama administration officials, appearing before a House committee to defend controversial government surveillance programs, ran into tough questions Wednesday from lawmakers of both parties, who expressed deep skepticism about the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and other communications.
The programs ignited a furor in the United States and abroad when they were publicly disclosed six weeks ago by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
July 18: A large and fascinatingly diverse coalition of internet companies, non-profits and journalism groups (including the American Society of News Editors) sends an open letter to Obama and Congressional leadership:
We the undersigned are writing to urge greater transparency around national security-related requests by the US government to Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers for information about their users and subscribers.
The list of signers is itself an instance of the Snowden effect. James Risen of the New York Times on the significance of the letter and the fact that the telephone companies did not join:
While prominent Internet companies are pushing for fuller disclosure, some of the nation’s largest telecommunications firms were not willing to sign on, according to several people involved in the coalition. Some of those businesses have previously received legal immunity from Congress for their involvement with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, and have close and longstanding ties to the N.S.A.
But the Silicon Valley Internet firms that did sign did so because they are increasingly concerned that the N.S.A. controversy that erupted in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could damage their credibility, particularly with customers overseas.
July 22: Dana Priest of the Washington Post reviews how the NSA got so huge. She also pinpoints the Snowden effect:
The NSA’s ability to capture, store and analyze an ever greater amount of people’s communications has never been accompanied by public explanations of new legal authorities, programs or privacy safeguards. Only the unauthorized disclosure of these secrets has forced officials to explain them in broad terms, reassure the public and complain about the damage from their public airing.
July 24: The latest NBC/WSJ poll includes favorability ratings on Snowden. It asks Americans if they view him positively or negatively, like a presidential candidate or Speaker of the House. This to me is an extreme example of personalizing the issue. Why does it matter if Americans have warm, cool or indifferent feelings about Snowden? If they don’t “like” or approve of him, does that mean they do approve of the NSA’s methods? Pollsters could get at that by asking about those methods directly– and they have. Snowden isn’t running for anything. He’s not asking for Americans to love him. I fail to see what purpose the question serves, and if it was thought through what the thinking was. To me it just seems like self-trivializing behavior by NBC and the Wall Street Journal.
July 25: Part of the Snowden effect is not only additional reporting but open debate and democratic decision-making where there had been none like that before. A direct example: On July 24 the House of Representatives debated — and voted on — an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have cut off funding for the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of the telephone records, which was revealed in the first article The Guardian published based on Snowden’s leaks. The fact that the leadership let it go to a vote was startling. Even more startling: there were YES and NO votes in both parties and some suspense over the outcome: a narrow defeat for the amendment, 205 to 217. So here we have a pitifully rare instance of representative democracy actually working the way the school books describe — a real debate, a real vote of real consequence — and it sprang directly from what Snowden revealed. The interval from published story to House vote: seven weeks.
July 26: First the Snowden effect forced officials from the surveillance agencies to testify in the open before Congress. Now the concern that Congress has only heard from “one side” has led to an invitation for critics — including The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald — to testify before the House.
July 31: As an account in Forbes put it: “The ‘Snowden Effect’ was in full force on Wednesday… The Director of National Intelligence declassified documents about its bulk collection of phone and email metadata and an example of the court authorization to collect, store and query that data.” That’s a gain in public knowledge. See Adam Serwer for more on politics of that release.
August 1: If this isn’t the Snowden effect, I don’t what is. From the New Zealand press, the McClatchy Washington bureau gets wind of possible spying on its reporter, then sends a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking for clarification, and receives a reply in two days: “Director Clapper has reviewed the letter and directed his staff to immediately look into the issues raised. He looks forward to providing a response.”
August 4: The New York Times reports on other agencies in the U.S. government — including those fighting drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and copyright infringement — attempting to get their hands on surveillance data collected by the National Security Agency.
The recent disclosures of agency activities by its former contractor Edward J. Snowden have led to widespread criticism that its surveillance operations go too far and have prompted lawmakers in Washington to talk of reining them in. But out of public view, the intelligence community has been agitated in recent years for the opposite reason: frustrated officials outside the security agency say the spy tools are not used widely enough.
August 10: The Economist publishes an editorial entitled, simply, The Snowden effect. It’s a response to President Obama’s spectacularly dubious claim in an August 9th press conference that he would have increased the transparency of the surveillance state and introduced reforms to the NSA anyway— without Edward Snowden’s leaks and the effects I have documented here.
Mr Obama laments that the debate over these issues did not follow “an orderly and lawful process”, but the administration often blocked such a course. For nearly five years it appeared comfortable with the secret judicial system that catered to executive demands. It prized the power to spy on Americans, and kept information from Congress. Mr Snowden exposed all of this. His actions may not have been orderly or lawful, but they were crucial to producing the reforms announced by Mr Obama.
For more on that spectacularly dubious claim of Obama’s see Timothy Lee of the Washington Post: The president is wrong: The NSA debate wouldn’t have happened without Snowden. Also good in adding documentation to the Snowden effect is Trevor Timm: Edward Snowden is a patriot.
The Snowden effect as an infographic.
You can find all my writings on Snowden, the surveillance state and the press here.