Snowden’s disclosures caused political divisions

May 6, 2014

By Jonece Dunigan
NNA News Fellow

Hero. Whistleblower. Coward. Traitor. These are some of the names that Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, was called after leaking confidential documents concerning data collection by the NSA last June.

Snowden’s disclosure about the five-year collection of telephone and e-mail logs, created a public policy uproar on Capitol Hill, and has caused unusual political divisions with Tea Party Republicans, libertarians and American Civil Liberties Union liberals—clashing with establishment Republicans and Democrats who argued that national security interests need to come first.

Some members of Congress, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, sued the Obama administration, charging that NSA’s data collection policies violated Americans’ rights. Others continued to support the NSA, arguing that the agency’s first mission is to protect the American people against terrorism.

Rep. Alan Nunnlee, R-MS, made it clear which side he was on.

“He is a traitor who needs to be tried for treason. His exposure of the metadata program is a grain of sand of the beach compared to the rest of what he did. He gave the playbook to our enemies. As a result, they are changing tactics. He has put the lives of our servicemen and women in danger,” Nunnlee said.

Nunnlee represents the 32 percent of Americans who fully approve of the way that the NSA is investigating terrorism, according to a Gallup poll. A Pew Research Center poll, however, reported that 56 percent of Americans say that federal courts fail to provide sufficient limits on the collection of telephone logs. Also, 72 percent believe the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism.

Republican State Sen. Chris McDaniel is one of those believers. The Tea Party muscle man who is campaigning to oust six-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, in the GOP primary, introduced the Fourth Amendment Protection Act in the Mississippi Legislature last January.

“James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote ‘the powers delegated to the federal government by the proposed Constitution are few and defined. Those remaining to the states and the people are numerous and indefinite,’ ” McDaniel said, asserting that his bill keeps faith with Madison’s vision.

According to McDaniels’ bill, Mississippi will no longer support federal agencies that collect citizens’ data without a warrant. This comes after Reuters reported that NSA surveillance data has been shared through a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency database with local and state law enforcement for investigations that do not deal with terrorism. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act would have made Mississippi the 10th state to enact legislation against NSA surveillance, but the bill died in the Senate Rules Committee. McDaniel said he believes, however, he was supporting Mississippians’ interests.

“The people of Mississippi believe in the Constitution, the document this country was founded upon. They care because their privacy is being invaded, their Constitutional rights are tossed aside by big government control,” McDaniel said.

In January, President Barack Obama announced new reforms to NSA surveillance policies. The changes include requiring the courts’ permission before looking through phone records and limiting analysts to investigating people no more than two contacts removed from those believed to have suspicious ties to terrorism, instead of the current three.

Only 8 percent of Americans seemed satisfied with the president’s reforms. More than half said that key issues were not addressed, such as the panel’s recommendation to cut the number of years records are retained from five years to two.

Nunnlee said he believes it is a myth that an American citizen’s next phone call, text message or tweet will result in a breach of privacy. He preaches about the NSA being a successful defense against terrorism. His proof: There has not been a successful attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

“What we learned since then is that we did not have law enforcement agencies communicating with each other. We learned that there has been communications between terrorists in Afghanistan and terrorists in the U.S. before the 9/11 attacks and law enforcement knows that. So, it’s important that we maintain the safety of the citizens of the U.S.,” Nunnlee said.

The NSA debate is splitting the nation outside the halls of politics. Snowden, who is in political asylum in Russia, told The Guardian that he was willing to sacrifice his $200,000 salary, his home in Hawaii and a stable girlfriend for the interests of the people. Many young adults believe him. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 57 percent of 18- to 29-year olds believe he served the public’s interest, while 53 percent of adults 65 years and older believe he has harmed the public’s interest.

Many political scientists believe the digital age greatly influenced the opinion of young adults about Snowden. Not many people can go grocery shopping, go to church or even drive without witnessing a young adult pecking away on his or her smartphone. Some believe Snowden’s report made them realize that a Facebook status or tweet could cause a breach of their privacy. And there are powerful interests who are now supporting their views.

Since April 2005, a coalition of technology giants such as Goggle, Facebook, DropBox, has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a push to upgrade the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. The coalition believes that the law is prehistoric protection for today’s ever-evolving technology. The upgraded bill would require law enforcement to get a warrant before accessing any digital communications and will also create new privacy protections for a person’s geographical information stored and used by mobile applications and other devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Melissa Graves, assistant director of the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Mississippi, believes that the level of student concerns about privacy issues is not as widespread as it is sometimes portrayed.

“Snowden’s actions merely once again shed light on that tension, particularly regarding the scope of the NSA’s collection capabilities related to digital communication. But again, I think that if young people were truly concerned about their privacy, we’d have seen a mass exodus from social media, which didn’t happen,” Graves said

Based on her interactions with students, Graves said she believes there has been a misinterpretation of what they hear in the media.


Fact or fiction

Said the word “bomb” in a conversation lately?

You think you might be spied upon.

Are you a foreigner studying in the U.S., talking to a family member back home?

You think your phone might be tapped.

Bill Combs, technical director in the public affairs office for the NSA’s Central Security Service, states emphatically that the NSA does not work that way.

“We’re never asked to listen to everybody at the same time,” Combs said. “The NSA doesn’t collect anything unless they have the authority to.”

Nunnlee is assured that the privacy of Americans is adequately protected based on the fact that the conversations between U.S. citizens are not part of the metadata program. It is usually communications between foreigners in the U.S. and suspected terrorist outside the country. In addition, a federal judge has to give an order before the NSA can look at the data. Nunnlee places emphasis on the data part.

“They’re not looking at the content, they are looking at point-of-contact to point-of-contact,” Nunnlee said.

Although many believe that the misinterpretation lies with the media, McDaniel said he believes supporters of the NSA are misinterpreting the Constitution. Although his bill did not go forward, he urges Mississippi legislators to join the fight against spying.

“The Fourth Amendment prohibits all federal agencies from vacuuming up your e-mails, phone records, banking information and location data without a warrant. Mississippi may not be able to stop the federal government from trampling the Constitution, but it surely doesn’t have to help,” McDaniel said.